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Overload What's Causing It, and How to Solve It

January 1, 1999
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Time Management, Featured Article
Workloads never set out to hurt anybody. But doesn't it seem like over the past couple of years, someone named "Mr. Overload" muscled his way into all of our workplaces, sat down in our chairs and took over our lives? Both the increased speed and complexity of work these days is leaving everyone from the executive suite to the factory floor throbbing from a massive migraine just trying to get all their work done.

Why this has happened, and why no one seems to be talking about it intelligently, let alone doing something constructive about it-is even more puzzling. Overwork is a human resources management issue, and Workforce is taking a close look at the problem, how we got here and what you can do about it.

What's causing overwork and why is it a problem?
You guessed it. Most employees don't just sign up to get overworked because they enjoy it. Economic, technological and business factors such as downsizing, the skills shortage and low unemployment have forced those American workers who were left sitting in the hot seat to give 150 percent (or more) just to stay on top of their workloads. Now, U.S. business leaders have come to expect and rely on this accelerated pace. What were once considered crises-mode workloads have now become business as usual. After all, the more people get done, the more our companies profit, right? True, the United States certainly is enjoying economic nirvana, but at what price? Collective burnout? Of course, burnout isn't new, but what is new is the way in which job overload-causing burnout-has elbowed its way into most of our work lives, sometimes without our even realizing it's a problem.

Take Jennifer Johnson, for instance. Johnson, who's now the principal strategist for Johnson & Co. in Santa Cruz, California, is a classic example of a fast-tracker who was headed for burnout, but jumped off the train before she crashed. "I was a corporate warrior for about 15 years," says Johnson. "When I first left college, I immediately began working 80-hour weeks in my first job at Novell in Provo, Utah." As a 22-year-old editor, she turned the company's in-house newsletter into an international consumer magazine that Novell sold three years later to The McGraw-Hill Companies for $10 million. She recalls nights when she'd stay at the office until 2 a.m., and was back in the office by 8 o'clock the next morning. "I realized it was the dues-paying time of my life and I actually thrived on the fast pace," Johnson admits.

After she took a job in advertising at another firm, got married and had kids, the pace became dizzying. She vividly remembers her breaking point 19 months ago when life and work clashed in the extreme. "My husband Scott, who headed the marketing function for one of 3Com's international-business units, was returning from a trip to Japan. The plan was for me to hand off the kids to him at the airport, and then I was going to catch a plane for the East Coast." It turns out her husband's plane was 20 minutes late. The moment he arrived, she threw the kids to him and sprinted to her own plane, luggage in tow.

"People can't fend off work as easily anymore. And the fact that it 'isn't your job' just doesn't cut it," says Bridges. Companies need to take stock of where they're at with workloads.

In flight and exhausted, Johnson found herself writing a resignation letter. "I was laughing out loud as I wrote it because it was so obviously what I needed to do," she says. Johnson then started her own company-a virtual marketing organization that teams 17 contractors, mostly women, from across the country. Many of them were as desperate to balance their lives as she was. "I saw a lot of women who were forced to make the choice of either working or taking care of their families because their companies wouldn't be flexible," says Johnson. "I'm now seeing a world in which employees, after being downsized and rightsized, are turning the tables and they're my-sizing their jobs."

Workers who feel trapped in jobs in which they're powerless to do something about it tend to burn out faster. Ironically, those employees who are in fast-track careers are often the first ones to crash and burn, according to Beverly Potter, a workplace consultant and author of Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renew Enthusiasm for Work (Ronin Publishing, 1998).

Although Johnson admits when she was a 22-year-old she actually liked being what she calls a "fast burner," it wore her out after a while. Right before she left Novell the second time (she returned there after the ad agency job), she asked to be able to telecommute two days a week. "It really surprised me that they were unwilling to let me do that, even though they're a technology company," says Johnson. She found during her second maternity leave that she often got a lot more done working at home than when she was in the office-and having to contend with meetings, interruptions and mountains of extraneous information. "If HR and business line managers could start thinking outside the box about what really needs to get done, I think it would help relieve a lot of people's workloads."

Keeping pace, productivity and priorities.

Sure. Johnson is a poignant example of work overload. But the problem is that the Jennifer Johnsons of the world are becoming the norm, not the exception. The pace of work could be compared to an insidious weight problem. Like extra pounds, the extra minutes at work turn into extra hours, until one day you realize you never see daylight-or your waistline. Work consumes your life. It's always a challenge for companies to get the right balance between expectations, performance and productivity, and workers feeling like they're contributing and challenged, but not sucked dry.

Lonnie Golden, a labor economist at Pennsylvania State University, located in Media, Pennsylvania, notes that recent research shows that weekly work hours are, indeed, on the rise-but the increase is unevenly distributed among manufacturing workers as opposed to service-sector workers. For example, overtime in U.S. manufacturing industries averages about 4.7 hours per week, and it's more than five hours in durable goods industries. Those figures, the same for 1996 and 1997, were all-time highs since such things began being recorded in 1956.

And the trend toward making fewer workers do more work continues most notably in unionized environments. "Employers are attempting to force more labor out of their current employees rather than creating new jobs. That's the bottom line," said Jim Grossfeld, a labor consultant, in an Associated Press article in November 1998. Union leaders cast mandatory overtime as a family values issue, arguing that it robs parents of time with their children and strains marriages. With workers already complaining during relatively rosy economic times, there's concern that the problem could grow worse during an economic downturn. For example, late last August when 35,000 members of the Communications Workers of America struck U.S. West Communications, based in Englewood, Colorado, their complaints included forced overtime that frequently meant 60-hour workweeks. The settlement included a cap on mandatory overtime at 16 hours per week in 1999, and eight hours per week beginning in 2001.

It's interesting to note that U.S. labor law doesn't limit the number of work hours as long as companies pay overtime for hours worked. But, by the way, we all know that means we have to compensate nonexempt workers for overtime. Exempt workers are on their own when it comes to negotiating higher pay for higher productivity or stronger business performance.

If we can call it the bright side, all this overtime is helping push the recent surge in American workers' productivity. After growing at a brisk 2.9 percent annual rate in the 1960s and early 1970s, productivity slowed to a miniscule 1 percent from 1974 through 1995. Since then, it has been growing at around a 2 percent rate. That growth has led some economists to speculate that the economy has embarked on a new era of productivity growth, driven by computers and other high-tech innovations.

With the influx of technology, such as cellular phones and the Internet, workers are wired to the office 24 hours a day and are expected to achieve mind-boggling workloads. The Associated Press reported last May that the average business manager receives 190 messages per day. "Many incoming messages today, unlike 20 years ago, demand a response," says Dan Wiljanen, vice president of human resources at furniture maker Steelcase, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "Today, you have to answer that voice mail or e-mail, so there's added pressure."

Overtime in other sectors, such as the service industry, can't reliably be tracked because part-time workers skew the numbers. For example, a November 2, 1998 article in The New York Times describes how part-time work is often now considered 35 or 40 hours a week. According to a 1997 study conducted by the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research group in New York City, the average workweek for a professional has stretched in the last 20 years to almost 48 hours from 45. "The complicated issue is: If a full week is 60 to 80 hours, what is part time?" Ellen Galinsky, president of the institute, was quoted asking. Indeed, our idea of a workweek has become blurred over the years.

Workforce reported in "Working Smarter" (June 1993) that 95 percent of employees were working more than 40 hours a week, and our advice to HR execs back then was that they ought to start rethinking workflow and prioritizing tasks to boost productivity and morale. Those are still good solutions. The problem is few companies implemented them. Now the overwork problem has spiraled further out of control, threatening to suck the life out of workers, and workers themselves out of the workforce. Hundreds are quitting Corporate America daily because they're tired of the empty promises about companies helping them "balance their lives." The HR questions are: Have jobs grown too big for most workers? And what are companies really doing about it?

Reengineering jobs to fit employees.
One of the running jokes at Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft Corp. is you can work any 18 hours a day you want. Although it's well known that Microsoft employees reap hefty rewards for their intense productivity in terms of comp, benefits, stock options and the like, making overwork the corporate requirement can have its drawbacks. Many companies recognize the problem, and many think they've already solved it. But they should take another look at their solutions.

According to Terry Alan Beehr, professor of psychology at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, and an authority on organizational psychology, job stress is too often treated with medication or counseling rather than by making changes in the workplace and in workloads. Managers often are guilty of throwing work/life programs at workers or sending them to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). In Psychological Stress in the Workplace (Routledge, 1995), Beehr says managers make the mistake of resisting organizational change instead of altering the source of job stress, such as long workdays, technological advances, work overload and role conflict-having two or more tasks that are incompatible.

William Bridges, founder and principal strategist at William Bridges & Associates, a Mill Valley, California-based consulting firm that provides resources to organizations and individuals in transition, purports that jobs as we know them are going away. Bridges, who's the author of JobShift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs(R) (Addison Wesley, 1994), notes that we're already in what he calls the throes of having a "dejobbed" work environment in which the lines between jobs have become blurred. "In the old days when people had very clear jobs, work-to get into your in-box-had to fall squarely into the category of your job description," Bridges explains.

Not so any longer. At Job Boss Software in Minneapolis, the company's CEO, Ed Booth, has been quoted saying their workers "are like a volleyball team because it takes three hits to get the ball over the net, and it doesn't matter who hits it." Now, as companies move away from traditional job descriptions to having more flexible, cross-functional teams and employing more free agents, it gets less clear whose work any given project or task really is. "Because if it isn't clear whose work something is, it can be given to anybody, including the people who already are overworked," says Bridges. "People can't fend off work as easily anymore. And the fact that it 'isn't your job' just doesn't cut it."

These ideas aren't just nice ideas to help workers feel not so stressed out. We're talking about boosting productivity through scheduled breaks in the work schedule.

Companies need to take stock of where they're really at with their workloads and how those workloads piled up to where they are today. "This is a time when work needs to be trimmed just as firmly as the workforce has been trimmed," says Bridges. He explains that companies have cut people out of the workforce (downsized) with razor-sharp accuracy, but haven't trimmed the workloads of the people who've remained with the same vigor. As a consultant, he has noticed there's a great deal of unnecessary work being done in U.S. companies. "Justifying work is very important," Bridges adds. It's a matter of figuring out what work is necessary and what isn't. It's essentially reengineering workloads. "I know that reengineering has a bad name," says Bridges, "but we need to take a close look at what we're making workers do." However, unlike reengineering, he says this is something workers themselves have to be very involved in.

For example, the HR leaders at Merck & Co., the giant pharmaceutical company based in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, realized after hearing workers' complaints about overwork, inadequate training, schedule changes, poor new-hire screening and lack of communication, among other things, that they needed to respond-quickly. In a major work redesign effort, Merck's management team assigned employees to teams that were devoted to solving these problems. Work was analyzed, dissected and reorganized so that workers felt like they had more control over their workloads and schedules. "We focused on the things that are really important to our customers," says Michelle Peterson, senior director of work/life flexibility, who oversaw the effort.

In one area of the company, payroll employees weren't happy with the large amount of overtime they had to put in. During a series of meetings, team leaders realized that most of their work was more critical earlier in the week than toward the end of the week. Solutions included reducing peoples' commute time by allowing them to work at home more often, and giving them compressed work weeks. They provided technology so payroll workers could input data at home. Solutions to the most difficult problems were implemented within three months and turnover slowed from 45 percent to 32 percent, and is still dropping. In addition, overtime costs and absenteeism plummeted. And for the employees, overtime and commute time were slashed.

HR managers should also be willing to suggest that managers outsource tasks that are unnecessary, or could be done more effectively by a third party. "Who should do the work?" is the question every manager should ask about every bit of work. "And you may find some of the work could go outside, and you readjust what's left so it isn't so overwhelming," says Bridges.

Dell Computer Corp.'s direct-to-customer business model, for example, takes outsourcing to a new level. The firm doesn't just outsource a few tasks; it actually turns over three-quarters of its work to non-employees, particularly field service and manufacturing. Still, the firm employs 20,800 people in 42 countries. "So Dell isn't just outsourcing in the sense they're having trouble with a certain process so they got rid of it," explains Bridges. "They've designed a new kind of organization in which the majority of the work is done by people who work for other companies." It's the concept of work distribution.

Dell started the company organizing work this way. However, it's more difficult for older companies to follow this model because it can mean layoffs or downsizing. Instead, some companies are beginning to look at how they organize jobs and roles throughout their organizations. Many are moving toward putting jobs into job families or roles.

For example, the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency (MHFA), located in Boston, recently embarked on a comprehensive, strategic planning process to see whether the services they're providing to their customers are still relevant. They discovered during the process that they needed a new overall HR strategy that would result in a flatter, more flexible system. Previously, they had 400 employees and about 390 job descriptions. "We're also victims of fewer people and increasingly more work to do," says Frank Creedon, MHFA's director of corporate planning and development. They didn't get rid of job descripions, but did come up with five roles or "impact groups" throughout the company (such as business leaders and individual contributors) and eight core competencies they see as most significant that those people need to accomplish. By focusing on what's important, they're starting to eliminate extraneous work.

Focus on what's most important.
According to an article in the Salt Lake Observer in October 1998 called "The Zen of Managing Transition," one expert reminds us that you get what you focus on. Nancy Garbett, president of Transition Management Inc. of Salt Lake City, tells us this age-old idea has roots in quantum physics and cybernetics. "It's actually been proven in physics that what you focus on is what you get," Garbett says. "What happens with the brain is that once there's a compelling image of a desired outcome, the brain will give constant and corrective feedback-automatically and unconsciously-to keep us on track to that outcome." The idea is: Don't have just a flashlight on the goal, put a floodlight on it.

Bridges has observed that there are leaders and managers who take advantage of their powerful positions by telling workers to do things that really don't make sense. "It's the Dilbert(TM) syndrome, in which a manager says, 'Do this,' and the workers know it's ridiculous," Bridges quips. These days, in a 24-hour-a-day, global marketplace that moves faster than the speed of e-mail, it's important for HR managers to help their firms' management groups figure out what's most important to get done.

For example, this strategy has been a big focus at San Francisco-based AirTouch Communications Inc. this year. Tracey Borst, who heads the firm's HR team, says although she hears rumblings about overwork from time to time, the "noise level" about it hasn't gotten in the way lately. To nip the problem in the bud, the senior management team has been trying to get better at prioritizing work throughout the company by letting employees know which company goals are most important. "Even if we had all the money in the world, we still wouldn't have enough people and would have to let some things fall by the wayside," says Borst. "There's a limited number of resources to maintain customers and to create new products, so you have to focus on what's most important and create a balance."

According to predictions about what will be important in 1999, Flexible Resources, Inc., an employment and consulting firm based in Bloomfield, Connecticut, that specializes in providing flexible staffing solutions at the professional level, predicts employers will focus less on head count and more on employee output. To get more out of people, they predict managers will have to invest their resources in making sure employees get the most out of existing technology. Where appropriate, they'll redistribute workstations or components to ensure they're used to their full potential. Next, they'll step up efforts to boost productivity by using technology in new ways, such as equipping their remote workforces with laptop computers and cell phones.

These are things some top companies have already done. Says John Sullivan, head of San Francisco State University's HR management program, "I know of the overstressed world, but I don't find it in the top HR departments anymore." Sullivan says the better firms with world-class HR like Hewlett Packard (HP), Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems and Intel have already overcome much of that "do more with less" stress. "Much of it was overcome in the reengineering cycle we all went through two to four years ago, and the rest is being done through the use of technology that allows us to 'do more with less.' Sure, people still work long hours, but the stress levels have been reduced by using intelligent HR practices combined with technology. Turnover rates at the top firms (HP being the leader) are below 7 percent, even in the highly competitive Silicon Valley," he notes.

Still, even with all the tweaking of processes and technological advances, why is it that companies are scrupulous about maintaining their inert equipment, but don't pay as much attention to giving their human assets workload tune-ups? Machines regularly get oiled, cleaned and tuned. But when it comes to workers, we just expect they'll handle ever-increasing amounts of work without regard to regular check-ups. The human person is capable of a lot-probably much more than we can even imagine. But it seems we need to consider some age-old rules about human capacity along with some enlightened new ideas about how to work-and how not to work-in order to produce at the top of our game.

Think "balance."
"Back some time ago, we used to say that some of our job roles here weren't unlike taking a drink from a fire hose. They were just overwhelming," quips Wiljanen, Steelcase's top HR leader. "The question is: How do we go about coping with the stress?" Last year, when Wiljanen's HR team sent out its first-ever, 18-question employee survey, it asked to what extent workers feel there's balance between their work and family lives. Wiljanen says the survey got a middle-of-the-road score that told him workers could really use more balance. "So we know that's an issue, and it may become more of an issue down the road. We want to think proactively about what we can do to relieve some of the stress and strain," says Wiljanen.

The HR team is continuing to experiment with workspace design that addresses how to get work done in a less stressful way. The company is experimenting with an open plan with no private offices. It has a rule that no one can schedule meetings between 8 and 9 o' clock. "The idea is to keep that hour open so people can talk and catch up," says Wiljanen. The furniture is more like what you'd find at home and almost invites relaxation. There's even a large fishtank in the common area that workers like to congregate around. "We put things in the environment to almost cause people to take a deep breath and recognize there's more to business than meeting after meeting," he adds.

And the top management team at Steelcase has just embarked on another two-year experiment called "Fit For Life" to see the impact of fitness and health on executives' performance and feelings of well-being. "We're starting at the top because we think the top managers need to model these behaviors, and we're trying to change the norms around the organization. The idea is to give people permission to take a break in the middle of the day, or at the beginning or at the end of the day, two to three times a week," he explains. The company wants to make it part of the natural workweek to go to a local fitness center or to jog. "And we think that will have an impact on the stress people feel," Wiljanen adds. Steelcase seems like it's on the right track to a kinder, gentler-and perhaps more civilized-way of working.

"What we need most of all is a way of living and working that offers real solutions to the do-more-with-less, do-less-with-less, do-more-with-more conundrum," says Let Davidson, in his book Wisdom at Work: The Awakening of Consciousness in the Workplace (Larson Publications, 1998). Davidson is a global corporate consultant and leads seminars on empowerment, stress, change management, and personal and spiritual development.

"This is a dilemma that can't be fully resolved by day planners, working smarter, better computers, more bandwidth, elaborate networking or even 30-hour workweeks." He offers the more spiritual approach of being and doing called "flow." We've all heard of "going with the flow." This is much like that. It's when people are "fully present, inwardly quiet and absorbed in the work." The idea is that instead of loading ourselves up with details and massive amounts of input, we need to step back and allow our inherent potential and creativity to be released so we can make our full contribution in our work and to one another.

Easier said than done? Perhaps. But Ron Rosenberg, president of QualityTalk, a Raleigh, North Carolina organization devoted to helping companies successfully implement change to improve performance and effectiveness, has ideas about how to get more balance in our work and personal lives. These ideas aren't just nice ideas to help workers not feel so stressed out. They're necessary solutions for employees who'll reach a breaking point from overwork if the problem isn't addressed sooner rather than later. We're talking about boosting productivity through scheduled breaks in the work schedules, not just giving people more downtime. Just as there's an ebb and flow to life and cycles in nature, there should be cycles to people's workloads.

  • Here are Rosenberg's suggestions:
  • Vary the workloads of each individual.
  • Rotate people on assignments.
  • Set a time for individual and group rejuvenation.
  • Give people a time out-both on the job and off the job (i.e. vacation).
  • Give sabbaticals after five years or so.

"The concept is active inactivity," says Rosenberg. "Take time to just sit on the porch and watch the grass grow." People tend to get their best ideas (read: solutions to problems, including those at work) when they're not even consciously thinking about it.

When you come right down to it, perhaps we can't prevent "Mr. Overload" from coming to our offices altogether. But we can learn to work with him more consciously and intelligently. There are some new tools and ideas HR professionals can use to alleviate the work overload problem. Recognizing the problem exists and that it can be destructive is a good first step.

Workforce, January 1999, Vol. 78, No. 1, pp. 30-37.

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