Are you the leader of a team and looking at ways to manage a heavy workload? How many hours do you and your staff work every week? What do you consider to be an excessive workload? Do you believe that working fewer hours would positively impact your team members‘ stress levels, their work-life balance, and their overall wellbeing?
Since the pandemic, a number of teams and organization have seen a tremendous increase in the intensity of work. But how much more can we all squeeze in? And is it right that people have to take on tasks they find too difficult or too long to complete during their working hours?
Can leaders control their team’s workload?
While you want to better manage the heavy workload in your team, you’re probably wondering what you can possibly do when you’re not directly responsible for creating such a high volume of work in the first place. Multiple other factors are at play. For example:
- External causes (such as unexpected supply chain disruptions) could create a higher workload.
- Changing technological or regulatory environments may increase the complexity and difficulty of the work. And suddenly, in order to obtain the same results, your team needs to put in more time and work.
- Or the senior leadership team continues to kick off new projects on top of what the team is already working on.
And I agree that as leaders we can sometimes feel we have little or no influence in changing some of these circumstances. But if we can start to understand more about how our workload affects us and our teams, we can take small steps to alleviate the negative effects that come with it.
The negative effects of a heavy workload
First thing first, it’s important we stop to consider some of the negative impacts that a consistently high or excessive workload can have on our well-being and mental and physical health.
Regularly working long hours or being expected to complete more work than we have time for will quickly deplete our resources. It impacts our physical and mental energy and also the time we have available. This is both during the working day and potentially even on evenings and weekends – something that tips the work-life balance heavily towards work.
But there’s also a flip side to that. According to research by Bowling and Kirkendall conducted in 2012, the negative impact on resources is high. But working too much can also stop us from further creating or replenishing other positive resources, such as building and cultivating relationships or learning new skills. In other words, if work takes up all our energy, we don’t have enough left in the tank to do the things that fill our cups in other ways.
Also, a consistently high workload can contribute to the onset of feelings of frustration but also anxiety, and depression. And at this point, it’s not uncommon for physical health symptoms to appear.
The impact of a high workload on job performance
It goes without saying that life at work also becomes impacted — job satisfaction and motivation may take a big hit. Or we could start to observe behaviours that negatively impact the overall organisational performance.
For example, staff may become focused exclusively on work and engage less with others. And while the workload continues to deplete our physical and cognitive resources, we also become less effective at our jobs, and we’re less likely to go above and beyond our role description. When work is too much, we start to suffer in every aspect of our life – both personal and professional.
Learning how to better distribute work
So how can leaders and organizations tackle this problem? The key is to understand how each of us perceives and handles our workload differently. That way, as leaders, we can start to see how to better distribute tasks between team members and also coach them to deal with the workload they’ve been assigned.
Objective vs perceived workload
But how can we understand how individual people perceive their own workload? As researchers Bowling & Kirkendall (2012) explain, we could think about workload as an objective and quantifiable number. For example, how many hours did someone work in a week? How many patients did a nurse look after? How many customers did a call center agent speak to? Or how many bugs did a software developer fix?
These are all objective measures – they are easy to find, track, or calculate. They can be quantified and compared. But they don’t take into account how the individual person feels about the numbers. For some, working 40 hours per week may seem easy to handle. For others, that number might be a source of considerable stress. So it has to be more than just the numbers.
To fully understand whether a team member is stressed because of workload, objective measures just won’t do. So what will work instead? For a start, ask them if they have too much or too little work to do, or if their work is too difficult or too easy. While objective workload can be manipulated and influenced by leaders, perceived workload cannot. As a concept, it also reveals a lot more about staff wellbeing and (because of the reasons explained above) work performance.
How to measure perceived workload
Workload is more than just a number of tasks or the amount of work that has to be done (MacDonald, 2003). Quantity is one thing, but as we explored when looking at objective vs perceived workload, other aspects contribute to the feeling of overload, too.
For example, some impacting factors could be:
- The way we experience the demand we face.
- The amount of effort we have to exert to get the work done.
- How well we think we’re doing (in other words, how we perceive or understand our performance to be).
Motivational factors play a role too in the way they influence how we see the task at hand. For example, do we like doing a particular job? Do we think it’s useful? How difficult do we anticipate it’s going to be? Plus, where we focus our attention and energy also matters. How many tabs and apps do you have open in parallel at any one time while working on a piece of work?
And finally, there are ISO standards that define all the different components that contribute to (mental) workload (MacDonald, 2003). And those look suspiciously familiar and similar to the job demands (i.e. stress factors) we covered in more detail in the blog post Applying the Job Demands-Resource Model to reduce stress at work:
The importance of reviewing your processes and procedures
When looking at ways to manage a heavy workload, I would suggest starting by reviewing existing processes and procedures. In particular:
- Can you identify any unnecessary steps?
- Is there duplication of work or rework involved?
- Are your processes as lean and efficient as they could be?
- Are you taking advantage of the tools you have access to?
- And are your processes automated wherever they can be? Or are you ‚gold plating‘ intermediate work products unnecessarily?
- But also, are the process steps in the right sequence?
- Are all your handover points clear? How is work handed over from one person to the next? If this doesn’t happen in the best possible way, you might encounter misunderstandings or missing input. And that could create additional work and frustration.
Improving your processes could go a long way in ensuring your workload isn’t negatively and unnecessarily impacted. But there’s more you can do to positively impact your team’s workload.
Five actionable steps to reduce a heavy workload
As you read this, did something obvious stand out to you? Can you identify any quick adjustments to improve your ways of working that would help you reduce your team’s workload? Perhaps you could make a note to yourself of when it might be a good time to take a closer look at the situation and set a reminder in your calendar. Until then, here are five actionable tips you might want to try.
1. Assign the right people to the right tasks and jobs
First of all, check that the people you hire have the relevant knowledge, skills, and abilities for the demands they face in their job. If and where required, hire additional workers or bring in external support to scale your team based on the amount of work available (Bowling & Kirkendall, 2012).
2. Train people
Having the right people or enough staff isn’t enough. Ensure you regularly train your team to increase their knowledge and skills so they can better handle the work they’re assigned to. Also, upskill yourself and reduce ineffective management behaviours so you can monitor workload more closely and detect any symptoms of excessive workload early (Bowling & Kirkendall, 2012).
3. Reassign work tasks between employees to level workload
Always keep an eye out for anyone in your team who has less work at any given moment or perhaps has skills that are better suited to deal with a particular task more efficiently (Bowling & Kirkendall, 2012). As a leader, you could also encourage and facilitate independent delegation between team members so in the future they could re-distribute and re-assign tasks between themselves.
4. Teach your team to plan ahead and encourage them to rest
In the words of Casper & Sonnentag (2020), „On days when employees worry about their next workday during the evening, high workload may already be associated with employees’ well-being even before employees are facing it. Worrying about one’s next workday is associated with lower well-being the next morning while planning one’s next workday is not associated with next-morning well-being. In anticipation of high workload, employees should refrain from worrying about work during leisure time, for instance by engaging in absorbing leisure activities.”
5. Identify work and tasks that can be paused
Together with your team, create a list of all the activities you have going on, then categorise them as follows:
- Maintenance/ continuous improvement.
Then analyze your list and make decisions accordingly. For example, for a certain amount of time, you might decide to only handle business-critical tasks. Of course, not all stakeholders would be thrilled by that choice. In that case, you’d need to approach them proactively in order to manage their expectations to protect your team from being impacted by the fallout of that decision.
Managing a heavy workload – critical questions and key takeaways
When thinking about your team’s workload, I’d urge you to ask yourself:
- What do you consider a high workload?
- What bothers you more – the hours worked or the number of tasks you’re being asked to carry out?
- How do you feel the standard of your work changes depending on your energy levels, the time of year, or how much you have going on in your personal life?
- And what about your team members? Who comes to mind who gets plenty done in a short amount of time? Who reacts strongly to the idea of having to do overtime? And is there anyone who doesn’t mind overtime at all?
- How can you use this information to your team’s advantage?
Of course, thinking differently and improving how we handle large amounts of work isn’t a long-term solution. As much as possible, our job as leaders is to identify and address the root causes. And the way to do this is by spending time investigating processes and procedures – are they helping or are they causing a greater workload? The best time to do this isn’t when you’re firefighting, of course, but when you have more space to breathe and think.
So what’s the first small action you will take to lighten the workload in your team and gain positive momentum?