Are your employees experiencing work overload? How to find out
If you don’t pay close attention to the amount of work you assign to your team, work overload can slowly creep its way into your organization — wreaking havoc and destroying productivity everywhere it goes. Burnout is real, and it’s a considerable challenge facing employers in 2023 and beyond.
Work overload costs companies a whopping $300 million each year, and that’s only in the US. 75% of workers report experiencing work overload at one time or another, so it’s by no means a tiny issue. Also, the pandemic seemed to make matters worse, as 67% of workers feel that the COVID-19 lockdowns worsened burnout.
Whether you manage an in-house or remote team of workers, employee overload is always a risk. That’s why it’s crucial for managers to know how to pick up on the warning signs, such as elevated stress levels and lowered engagement from employees.
There are also many ways that work overload can come about, from being short-staffed to a less-than-stellar company culture. If you aren’t careful, overwork will begin to affect productivity, work culture, and employee retention levels.
Besides that, it’ll also start to negatively affect your team’s mental health and well-being, which is never a good thing. For the sake of your productivity and your team’s sanity, it’s crucial for managers to learn how to avoid work overload, which is what I’m here to show you today — so read on to learn more.
Understanding work overload
First, it’s important to define work overload to understand how it differs from other types of burnout.
Burnout itself is more of an umbrella term since the condition can have so many underlying causes.
Here are the 3 most common types of burnout:
Under-challenged burnout. Some employees don’t experience burnout over too much work and responsibility. Instead, they become burned out because of the exact opposite: they don’t have enough to do. Besides that, the job demands they do have aren’t meaningful and fail to challenge their skills — leaving them with lots of extra time. Under-challenged burnout can also occur whenever an employee feels their role has no room for growth or improvement.
Neglect burnout. Another type of burnout occurs whenever an employee is ‘thrown to the wolves,’ so to speak. In other words, the employee fails to receive adequate direction and support from their manager. This means they’re left to their own devices to figure out what they need to get done, which may become overwhelming and excessively stressful.
Work overload burnout. Lastly, overload burnout is what we’re talking about today. It occurs whenever an employee doesn’t have enough time to complete the amount of work they’ve been assigned. This causes them to start working long hours to pick up the slack, which cripples their work-life balance. From there, it’s only a matter of time before burnout takes its toll via lost productivity, tardiness, and poor mental and physical health.
As you can see, burnout has many causes, but we’re here to focus on overload burnout in particular.
There are also two distinct types of work overload, which are:
Qualitative overload occurs when a teammate lacks the necessary skills to complete their most important tasks, causing them to fall behind as the work piles up.
Quantitative overload, on the other hand, is where an employee does possess adequate skills to complete their workload but doesn’t have enough time during the workday to get everything done.
To summarize, work overload is a type of burnout, and it can occur due to a lack of skills or an excessive workload.
Why does work overload occur?
Now that you know more about what work overload is, how does it come about? After all, if you’re an attentive manager with savvy time management skills, wouldn’t you know if one of your team members was taking on too much work?
The answer may surprise you, as work overload has a habit of creeping up on teams when they least expect it. Here’s a look at the most common causes of work overload.
Sometimes, being short-staffed is inevitable, like when you have someone quit at a moment’s notice. While you’re scrambling to find a replacement, your remaining team members will have to pick up the slack. That means at least one team member will have to take on more work than usual, which can lead to work overload.
Even when someone gives adequate notice when leaving, some positions are more difficult to fill than others. Whenever your organization experiences short staffing, remember to keep an eye out for signs of work overload.
Agreeing to too much work
Some employees have a bad habit of saying yes to new tasks even when they already have too much on their plate, as they’re eager to please and want to show off their work ethic. These types of workers are also more likely to remain silent whenever the workload becomes too great for them to bear.
As a result, they suffer in silence while their quality of work diminishes and personal life gets neglected. That’s why it’s your duty as a manager to check in with your employees and keep an eye on their workload to ensure they aren’t pushing too hard.
Poor company culture
Sometimes, the problem causing excessive work overload isn’t a lack of staff or an overzealous employee. Instead, the work environment is to blame. Some organizations have a habit of pushing employees too hard and have even incorporated it into their overall culture.
They use posh slogans like ‘nobody changed the world on 40-hours a week,’ or, ‘we employ a work hard, play hard culture to outperform competitors.’
While these are meant to inspire you to take on longer work hours and complete more tasks, all they do is invite work overload. There’s a stark difference between putting in an honest day’s work and completely killing yourself.
We’re all human beings, and we need to set boundaries between our work and personal lives if we want to truly prosper in both.
The warning signs of work overload
As a manager, the best thing you can do for your team is to keep a lookout for the telltale signs of work overload. That way, you can step in to help better divide their workload across the rest of your team (and send them on a much-needed vacation).
If you don’t know which signs to keep an eye out for, you may not find out that an employee is taking on too much before it’s too late. To ensure that doesn’t happen, here are the most common warning signs of work overload.
Are your top performers suddenly missing entire tasks on their to-do lists? If so, that’s a surefire sign that they’ve got far too much work to do at the moment.
While an occasional missed deadline is common and can happen to anyone, it should raise an eyebrow when it’s a repeated occurrence from a reliable team member. That’s when it’s time to check in with the employee to see if you can help them get back on track with hitting their deadlines.
Dips in productivity and quality of work
In addition to missing deadlines, another sign of work overload is when you notice declining productivity from an employee. It could be that they’re not completing as many tasks as they normally would or that the work they do complete is of poor quality.
Once again, this is a sign that the team member is taking on far too much, which is causing them to make mistakes they would have caught otherwise.
It’s common for overloaded workers to start multitasking to try and keep up, which typically never ends well.
According to research, only 2.5% of the world’s population is able to multitask effectively. Unless your entire team is part of that minute slice of the population, multitasking will cause your employees to become far less efficient.
This study found that whenever your brain has to switch back and forth between two or more tasks (especially if they’re complex), the quality of your work drops, and you become more likely to make mistakes.
If you notice your team trying to knock out multiple tasks at once, you should have a conversation with them to see if they’re overloaded.
A lack of employee engagement is another sign that something is wrong, and work overload could definitely be the culprit. Disengagement can take on several forms, the most prevalent of which is a lack of participation during meetings.
For managers, meetings serve a dual purpose. On the one hand, you need to get your team up to speed on recent developments, new projects, and what your plan is for the next month.
On the other hand, meetings are the perfect time for you to gauge how your team is feeling. Even if you only meet over Zoom with your remote employees, you still get the chance to lay eyes on each team member. During the meeting, pay close attention to the vibes your team is giving off.
Is everyone smiling and sharing their opinions?
Or are you met with a sea of blank stares?
If it’s the latter, your employees are clearly disengaged, which could be due to being overloaded with work.
Tips for preventing work overload at your organization
You’re familiar with the causes, and you know the warning signs to watch out for, but how do you put an end to work overload once you find it? Even better, how do you prevent it from happening in the first place?
It turns out there are plenty of ways to stop burnout and work overload in their tracks, so let’s learn how.
Create a time budget for each project
A great way to avoid overloading employees is to create time budgets.
What are those?
A time budget is exactly like a financial budget, but it uses time instead of money. Each employee should have a budgeted amount of time for each day that correlates with their normal working hours. For instance, if your team works 8-hour shifts, you shouldn’t schedule them for more than 8 hours of work tasks per day.
To achieve this, you’ll need to calculate the time cost of each task, and you need to be accurate. Time-tracking software is a huge help in this regard, as it will track how long your team spends on each task.
From there, you need to assign a time budget for each project, task, and assignment. Let’s say that you have a project that you discover will take 32 hours to complete. Accordingly, you should give the team member you assign it to at least three working days to knock it out.
Expecting such a lengthy project to get done within a day or two isn’t realistic, but you’d have no way of knowing that unless you took the time to calculate your time cost – which is why time budgeting is worth it.
Reduce meeting frequency
If you want your team to make the most out of their work time, the best thing you can do is limit the number of meetings you hold each week. After all, there’s a lot of truth behind the popular meme: this meeting could have been an email.
Wherever possible, replace less important meetings with emails and quick phone calls. This will free up lots of precious time for your team, which will help prevent them from getting overloaded with work.
As a rule of thumb, you should only hold meetings whenever you have a dense agenda to get through. Otherwise, stick to Slack instead of Zoom.
Hold regular check-ins
You won’t know if your employees are burned out if you’re never around to see them, which is why regular check-ins are a must. These meetings don’t have to be long at all, as peeking your head in for a few minutes to check on a team member is all it takes.
During these conversations, make a habit of asking your team how well they’re faring with their current workload. It’s important for you to bring up the topic of work overload, as your employees may be shy about broaching the issue for fear of it making them look like bad workers.
If you bring it up, though, they’ll be more likely to be honest and open up about any issues they’re having with getting all their work done. Once they tell you that they’re overloaded, see if you can help delegate some of their work to co-workers.
Automate repetitive tasks
In today’s age, many time-consuming, repetitive tasks can be automated by software, which is a huge help. For example, the HR software platform Gusto enables users to automate a bevy of tasks related to payroll processing, including automated tax filing.
It’s also possible to automate tasks like time tracking and onboarding. For non-HR roles, plenty of software exists for automating tasks related to sales, marketing, administration, and more.
So, if your team is having an increasingly difficult time completing all their work, look into some software solutions to see if automation is an option.
Final thoughts: Preventing work overload
Burnout is a serious condition that can affect the physical and mental health of your employees, so you shouldn’t take it lightly. Work overload is one of the most serious types of burnout, as it involves high-stress levels, long working hours, and multitasking.
Time budgets, reducing meeting frequency, automation, and holding regular check-ins with your employees are the best ways to prevent work overload from occurring at your organization, so don’t hesitate to use them.