Overwork. No one has to define it. It's as common as endless rounds of phone tag. And it's beginning to take its toll in the workplace.
Downsizing has left many companies with fewer people, and those remaining workers have been forced to pick up the slack of the workers who have left. The result often is frantic employees and more stress-related workers'-compensation claims.
People worry that they can't take a vacation anymore. When they do go on vacation, their absence frustrates co-workers who have to cover for them. We joke about it, lament it, get angry about it, but it's a fact of work life.
"Our whole employee population [felt] very, very strongly that they [were] overworked and understaffed," says Ray Barth, former director of human resources for Holy Spirit Hospital in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. "Management is asking a tremendous amount more of people, and not only in terms of pure volume of work, but also in terms of quality. It isn't enough now to make sure that patients get their meals on time. Each meal has to come with a smile and a good word. We expect that when people are here, they're going to spend all of their time giving us 100% [of their] effort."
As a group, U.S. workers continue to increase the number of hours that they work. Recent studies now document the phenomenon that Barth saw at Holy Spirit Hospital.
A survey conducted by Priority Management, a Seattle-based consulting firm, revealed several interesting facts. Of the 1,400 workers surveyed, 95% work longer than the standard workweek of 40 hours; 57% work six to 20 additional hours per week, and 6% work more than 20 hours each week beyond the norm. People are averaging a 10-hour workday. Some of them work as long as 15 hours a day.
According to Juliet Schor, associate professor of economics at Harvard University and author of The Overworked American, the number of work hours had been decreasing for approximately 100 years until 1948. That came to an abrupt stop. "Today, the average U.S. worker is putting in an additional month of the year—that's about 160 hours more—than he or she was putting in about 20 years ago," says Schor. She has found that for women, the increase has been even greater—approximately 300 hours annually.
The Priority Management study found that 90% of respondents say that they lead basically unbalanced lives, and almost 85% are more concerned about balance than they were just five years ago. Leisure time has decreased by about 22%. Two-thirds of those individuals surveyed say that their jobs are more stressful than a decade ago, and one-third expect more stress by the year 2000.
The heavier workload is a result of increasing global competition, a greater amount of information coming across the desks of individuals, a faster-paced work environment and downsizing. According to the New York City-based American Management Association, 46% of those companies surveyed for the 12 months ending in June 1992 reported cuts in their work forces. That was on the heels of 55% for the preceding 12 months. In addition, the two-income family means more work and stress for men and women.
Given this work environment, how can it be fixed, or at least improved? Schor holds employers responsible for the problem of overworked employees. "Important incentives in the personnel relationship lead employers to have a strong preference for people who work long hours," Schor points out. These employers are reluctant to hire more employees and reduce the hours that people work.
Schor says, therefore, that it's the human resources professionals who can play an important role in changing the current environment.
Many companies have found solutions to defuse these intense work environments. With the help of human resources professionals, these companies are:
- Analyzing their business processes to determine which tasks are important and how managers can reorganize and streamline them
- Teaching managers and employees to work smarter by making better decisions about their work
- Decreasing the stress that employees experience by helping them attain balance in their lives.
Rethinking work flow has decreased the workload for HR at Merck & Co.
The human resources department needs to help employees work smarter and increase their productivity. On an organizational level, the work routine must be redesigned. "The first thing for human resources to do is to reflect on what it is they exist to do," says James E. Higgins, executive director of manpower management for Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck & Co. Inc. "Who's the customer and what does that customer want?"
By examining what the customer wants and then focusing on how you can help that person achieve it, you now get a sense of what's important and what isn't important. As that becomes clearer, Higgins recommends asking yourself, "What's the right thing for us to be doing?" You start to sort out how you're going to apply your resources, people and money to achieve that end and tailor your response accordingly. The essence isn't to look at how you're spending your resources, but at what you're spending them on. Are you spending them on the areas that you value?
This needs to be a continual process with a constant eye to the deployment of resources. Historically, managers asked the question differently. Because the company wanted to accomplish more work than before, the department or individual needed additional resources.
"No one looked at the fundamental question, 'Do you really want me to do more?'" says Higgins. "The way you do that is to look at all of the work that needs to be done and put it in order. Then, look at what you're doing and try to match those two up. You apply your resources to focus on what the customer wants and put less emphasis on what you might have thought was important or what you were doing out of habit. You can decide to stop doing certain jobs, [or] not do them as frequently as before or as elegantly as before."
Merck went through this process. The company uses a software tool called the Organization Analyst, which is similar to an activity-based costing technique. The organization asks people in many of the departments to detail where they spend their time. The nonpeople costs also are allocated to various activities. This results in a clear picture of where resources—both the people and the nonpeople dollars—are being spent. It also allows managers to determine where it makes the most sense to spend those resources.
The next step is to look at reallocating resources. Sometimes that requires moving people to different functions or retraining people to accomplish an important task. Sometimes it can require asking for more resources, but that's at the end of the road, not at the beginning.
"I think that's the most fundamental shift," says Higgins. "It's an examination of what one does today and a comparison with what's needed. It's very difficult to do this because it's new."
The application of technology can help. For example, Merck examined the business process in HR—specifically employment and placement. The first thing that the company did was to make a flowchart of all the tasks involved in hiring people and placing them into new jobs. This includes filling out forms, interviewing, spending time with agencies, going through physical examinations and putting new employees onto the payroll.
HR management discovered that everyone it hired filled out his or her name, address and Social Security number 22 times. One way to streamline this process was to have new employees write the information on one form that could be used for multiple purposes. Merck plans to automate the process so employees can fill out the information on a computerized form that will share the information with everyone who needs it. This decreases the work for the recently hired employee as well as other employees. It also reduces the chance that errors will be made during the 22 times that someone is filling out forms.
Another area that Merck examined was the process of authorizing merit increases. In most companies, at least one manager has to fill out a form, sign it and then the increase occurs. In Merck's case, it was four or five managers. Now, instead of authorizing individual increases throughout the year, management explained that it wants managers to plan increases only at the beginning of the year. Two months before the planned increase occurs, the HR department notifies managers that the increase will happen automatically unless payroll is notified otherwise.
Rather than people processing individual increases, managers now only have to process the exceptions (for employees who shouldn't receive increases), according to Higgins. He says, "They're dealing with 15% of the cases rather than 100%."
It pares down the work tremendously. There are approximately 12,000 exempt employees, and approximately 85% get merit increases annually. Each merit increase form required signatures from four to five managers. By focusing only on the employees not receiving merit increases, the company reduced the number of forms from 10,000 to 1,800.
If employees know the organization's mission, they'll work smarter.
According to Tee Houston-Aldridge, vice president of marketing for Priority Management, companies need to share the overall vision, mission and strategic plan of the company with employees. "If employees don't understand the overall mission and objective of the organization, then projects aren't going to have the meaning for them that they need to have. Nor will employees have the focus to complete projects effectively and efficiently. If they do know, that will help employees prioritize what is and isn't important to accomplish each day they come to work," says Houston-Aldridge.
Companies can disseminate this information through the organization, whether it's through a hierarchical structure or self-managed work teams. Regardless of how it's done, Houston-Aldridge says that companies need to help employees plan and prioritize on both an organizational and personal level. The company and the individual should develop a strategic plan that shouldn't be longer than three years. Both should then focus and micromanage the strategy on a yearly basis, a monthly basis and then on a daily basis. "The key is to have some sort of organizational process to keep in front of you to remind you what you need to focus on. Review it monthly and annually to be sure you continue to focus in the right areas," she says.
Just as important is the managerial process, which is changing. "More responsibility is being placed on managers to do the right thing, to do the decision making," says Higgins. There are two requirements that must be met for managers to make these decisions. One requirement that managers have is permission to exercise this new authority. They need to believe that it's OK to make decisions. They have to know that they can do something on their own without checking with someone else.
The second requirement is that managers have the knowledge to make the right decision. Many managers, for example, are accustomed to a centralized control system. As a result, they may not have been sufficiently concerned about certain decisions they have made because they figured that the control system would check it. Now in many instances, that isn't going to be the case. Managers need to understand the impact of their decisions. Therefore, they need a broader knowledge of how various business activities fit together. That's an educational issue.
In agreement with Houston-Aldridge, Higgins says that this is a communication issue as well as a training issue. It's the responsibility of the more-senior managers who know how things fit together to be sure that they communicate this knowledge effectively. They also need to be open to people who ask questions. Managers need answers so that they can make the right choices.
This kind of fundamental change, started at an organizational level, becomes a personal issue. For example, some senior managers may feel somewhat disquieted when they give more authority to people reporting to them. They may worry that the company will not need them because they're giving away some of their responsibilities.
"It comes down to the question, 'Why am I valuable?' It's a process for managers to appreciate that they aren't valued so much for their control but rather for their individual contributions," says Higgins. "What can they do to get things done [or] speed things up? I think this cultural-and people-awareness change is a long-term process. Depending on the size of the organization, it can take between five and 10 years."
It's a complex process, as Higgins points out. For example, managers will need to learn how to address employees who did the prudent thing that didn't quite work out right. "I know how to treat somebody who did the wrong thing on purpose. I know how to treat somebody who didn't try. I know how to treat somebody who did the right thing that was very successful. But if you treat the person poorly who is sincere, well-intended and who tries but makes a mistake, you'll never get anyone else to follow. The fact remains that learning occurs through mistakes. That needs to be appreciated."
Barth has found that some managers have trouble taking the leadership role. "We [were] having a difficult time getting people to recognize that as a department manager, you have to project whatever it is that senior management wants to accomplish, and you have to do it in a positive manner. This is a role change for many people. We're asking for more hours, we're asking them to get more out of the same resources, and we're asking them to take a positive and supportive attitude," he says.
Barth believes that managers aren't necessarily well-prepared to make this change, especially in the health-care field, which tends to be focused technically. These managers tend to focus on the technical aspects of the job, not the administrative or managerial tasks that they need to accomplish. It creates tremendous stress on these managers.
Another issue is the way that managers approach the prioritizing of work. If an employee assesses the workload and determines that 25% of it doesn't really need to be done anymore, that another 50% would be done more effectively by another department because it would streamline work, and the final 25% could be accomplished by someone lower in the organization because it isn't so sophisticated, the employee essentially has worked himself or herself out of a job.
"Now the question is, 'What do you do with me?'" says Higgins. "If that employee goes out the door, that's the last time you'll get anyone to do that again. The answer has to be, 'That's terrific. We have a lot of other things that are more important to do than what you've been describing, so let's get on with that.'"
To be productive, employees need to have balance in their lives.
Michael Marquart is a psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, California. He frequently sees people whose lives are so out of balance that they're one-dimensional. "They see work as a solution to their problems, saying, 'If I work hard enough, then I can take a vacation.' 'If I can get everything together, then I can spend time with my family.' 'If I can just finish this report, I can start the novel I want to start.' In that sense, one never catches up," Marquart says.
If they were to start that novel, or spend time with their families, that would be part of the solution. He suggests that people need to exercise, spend less time at work, plan time with the family or watch the volleyball match or Little League game. He also suggests that people write their leisure time activities into their schedules as they do their business activities.
Marquart cautions that the real question becomes, "Why don't people do this?" One reason, of course, is that overwork is looked upon as socially acceptable, even admirable. In addition, people may fear that unless they put in an enormous number of hours, they're not up to the tasks of their jobs. On the other hand, some people may be so one-sided that they feel that work is the only place in which they are competent. Finally, it's economic need that motivates them.
Balance, however, is very important. Ultimately, Marquart surmises, lacking a balanced life lowers productivity because without activities to rejuvenate them, people burn out. As a result, many people are rethinking their lives.
"We talk about it as the 'stool of life,'" says Pamela Headsten, an HR manager for Sun Microsystems Inc. in Mountain View, California. "Basically people need to have four legs on the stool—their work, personal relationships, hobbies and personal life and their beliefs. If any of those legs is uneven, you're going to have a situation of imbalance," she says.
Like many corporations today, Sun addresses the idea of work-life balance by providing a variety of resources. The company offers classes in stress management, an employee fitness center (open from 6:30 a.m. until 8 p.m.), extracurricular activities and intramural sports. It reimburses employees for expenses involved in outside sports activities, particularly individuals who join health clubs. Sun even holds off-site meetings to discuss balance between work and family and between work and personal life.
The organization has made its managers aware that it's easy to burn out in the extremely competitive high-tech field. They're also aware that productivity suffers from extreme overwork. Sun helps employees pay attention to the nonbusiness aspects of their lives. "We're trying to help people realize that there are needs for them other than work and to figure out how to balance those needs by making them aware of their importance," says Headsten.
Some companies address the problem of overwork and lack of balance by hiring temporary professionals. Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc. is one such company. It provides overload employees—people who work on a temporary basis. "Overload employees work on short-term assignments," says Dick Reid, a spokesperson for Medtronic. "They remain on the payroll, however, and can become eligible for paid time off and holiday pay. There's a clear effort to attract and maintain an overload work force that can move around the company and fill in for business units that are having an increase in workloads." These employees would be the same as temporary employees from outside firms, however, they only work for Medtronic. Most of the people provide administrative services.
This is one way a company can recognize—and try to remedy—overwork. There are many times, however, when a company needs more specialized skills, such as human resources. "Our clients use us for flexibility," says Dorothea G. Greene, president of HR Only, a Los Angeles-based company that specializes in placing HR temporaries. Health-care facilities, financial corporations and manufacturing plants hire temporary HR professionals as a way of dealing with employee stress and job overload, which are common in the HR profession.
For example, if a company is keeping its core human resources staff at a minimum, that staff is likely to be pushed to the limit when extra job requirements occur. It may need extra recruiters for a hiring push or a compensation specialist to develop a plan.
Ironically, according to Greene, the human resources departments are particularly prone to overwork since they tend to keep the staff at a minimum. They fill in, doing the best they can. The problem is that if you continue to overtax your staff, according to Greene, you run the risk of ending up with tired, cranky people who aren't motivated to do their work.
Mark A. Jablonski, assistant vice president of human resources at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California, has hired temporary employees in human resources for just these reasons. "Our human resources department has a lean staff, so when it comes to doing some additional large-scale projects, it has a tremendous impact on the day-to-day operations. There are everyday tasks that must be completed," he says.
Human resources professionals tend to focus on those daily tasks, sometimes to the exclusion of the large, important strategic projects. Sometimes employees are on short-or long-term vacations, or on sick or maternity leave, creating even more work for the available staff. At these times, Jablonski uses this type of professional service. Jablonski hired a worker to develop a policy and procedures manual. He hired another temp when he knew he was going to have a three-to six-month project that his regular staff couldn't accommodate.
HR needs to be creative in solving the problem of overwork.
Some of the best solutions to help overworked employees aren't the most obvious. Schor says that creative thinking and action on the part of human resources professionals are what's needed to solve this problem. Human resources managers should look anew at the problem of overwork and take it seriously.
"I'd like them to be creative in designing policies that allow people to get more free time," says Schor. She argues that there are many different types of policies that companies can implement that aren't expensive and even can reduce costs. Perhaps more importantly, these policies will shorten employees' working hours, giving them more free time.
"I know this is very counterintuitive because the credo of American corporate culture is that long is better," admits Schor. "We look to the Japanese and their long working hours and think that's what we need to do." But, of course, given the problems of overwork in Japan, that isn't necessarily a solution (see "If You're Feeling Overworked, Just Think About How the Japanese Must Feel").
Schor suggests that human resources professionals look at the way that benefits are paid and at the growth of benefits. Because companies pay them on a per-person basis rather than on a per-hour basis, there's a big incentive to force employees to work longer hours rather than hire new people.
Schor suggests a program of trading income for time. Such a program would give people the opportunity either to forego a raise one year or to take a cut in their current salary as a way to get more free time. They could buy vacation days, shorten their weekly working hours or build toward a sabbatical or extended leave. According to the Hilton Time Values Survey, conducted by Hilton Hotels Corp., such flexibility is appealing to employees. According to the survey, 48% of U.S. workers responded that they would be willing to sacrifice a day's pay for an extra day off each week.
Through flexible-benefit plans, such companies as Chicago-based Quaker Oats Co. are offering employees more control over their schedules. In January, when employees enrolled in QuakerFlex, the organization gave its workers the option to buy up to one extra week of vacation time at the cost of their daily rate of pay. According to Melanie S. Pheatt, Quaker's manager of benefit plans, 26% of employees took advantage of the benefit.
One such individual was Nancy Tippy, a manager of benefits administration at Quaker. "I appreciate having the flexibility to create the balance I need in my personal life," says Tippy. She used the extra vacation time to travel to her son's wedding.
In addition, Schor says that she thinks companies should begin figuring compensation systems on a per-hour basis rather than on a per-person basis so that benefits would increase or decrease based on hours. "These policies are cost-neutral," she explains. "The firm would offer an equivalent number of days to whatever salary was being given. It actually would be cost-effective because it would decrease turnover, and improve morale and a company's ability to recruit employees."
Schor also suggests a standardized number of hours for salaried workers. It could be a 60-hour-a-week job, but at least the number of hours would be set and agreed on by the company and its employees. If people worked more than that amount of time, they would be entitled to compensatory time off.
Felice N. Schwartz, president and founder of Catalyst, the New York-based nonprofit organization that works with business to effect change for women, says that she believes that this is part and parcel of a conspiracy of silence in corporate America. In her book, Breaking with Tradition, Schwartz says that employers don't talk about their expectations.
Schwartz says, "There has to be a breakthrough in that conspiracy of silence so we can begin a discussion of what's expected. The employer has to bring to the table what the expectations are and a definition of what they want." However, she admits, this is difficult to do.
One way to begin, Schwarz suggests, is to measure performance based on output, not by time in the office. "Companies are going to have to set goals and measure the degree to which people meet those goals," she says. If people can work at odd times or more quickly by working smarter, that's a step forward.
Unfortunately, few, if any, firms are implementing such policies yet. Still, firms like Merck have found innovative ways to help employees learn how to work more efficiently. People must take a personal interest in working smarter and balancing their lives. HR professionals must help employees see what they can do to help themselves pare down their work and work more effectively and competitively. Businesses must approach the problem from different aspects as well: looking at the business process, educating workers and communicating well. Overwork is a problem we all know too well, and one that we all can play a part in attempting to solve.
Personnel Journal, June 1993, Vol. 72, No. 6, pp. 54-64.