Overworked? Could Reducing Workloads be the Key to Improved Results?

We may be at a tipping point.  It just might be that we have hit the limit on how much we can do on any given day, week or month.  Most of us have more work on our to-do lists than we can ever do.  There are simply not enough hours.  We haven’t stopped to eat lunch in years, we fill our commute time with calls or email, we work after we put the kids to bed, and we look forward to weekends, not because we get some well-deserved leisure time, but because we can do some uninterrupted work or catch up on the essential things we just didn’t have time to get to. Where does that leave us? Stressed. Very stressed! Ironically, despite all the hours we work and all the sacrifices we make, there is often no clear indication that we are more productive.  We feel like we don’t do anything well because we don’t have the time to do it well; everything is done in a hurry, with constant interruptions.

 Perhaps worst of all; we are taking the fun out of work. It’s not the hours we are putting in that make it less fun.  Many of us put in long hours doing things we love. But it still brings us to a tipping point; the point at which our workload starts to undermine the natural reinforcers in the work we do. Under the right conditions, most of us enjoy our work.  We enjoy the challenge of a new project, figuring out viable solutions to problems, helping a colleague succeed, successfully pitching a product or idea, mastering a new skill, completing a difficult task, helping customers.  In scientific terms these are natural reinforcers.  Unlike reinforcers such as praise from a manager or bonuses, natural reinforcers are inherent in the work.   Because natural reinforcers are produced by the work itself, they tend to be more immediate and certain than other reinforcers and thus are more powerful.  Natural reinforcers energize us, they fuel us—they create discretionary effort. But reinforcers are conditional (even your favorite food isn’t reinforcing when you are full from Thanksgiving dinner), and natural reinforcers can lose their effectiveness when we are overloaded.  When we have more work to do than we have time for, we are less likely to experience natural reinforcers.

We are so focused on the next task, the e-mail that just came in, the next deadline; we don’t acknowledge and appreciate the task we just completed.  We don’t experience that sense of accomplishment.  Time constraints cause us to do our work faster and often with poorer quality so we don’t experience the same sense of pride.  Without those daily natural reinforcers, discretionary effort is compromised and we can become less satisfied with our work. At ADI, all of our work is focused on helping our clients capture discretionary effort.  But oftentimes we find that people confuse discretionary effort with increasing the volume of work. Discretionary effort is about outcomes, not hours worked.  It is about achieving business results through fluency in critical behaviors.  It is about identifying and reducing the behaviors that don’t have business impact and focusing on the behaviors that do.

The only way to get discretionary effort is through positive reinforcement and, as noted above, natural reinforcers are often the most effective.  So what can organizations do to ensure they aren’t inadvertently undermining natural reinforcers? To borrow a phrase from anti-drug campaigns, the first step may be to “just say no”.  Most leaders reinforce saying “yes” to everything—yes I can take on the project, yes I can do without replacing that employee who retired, yes I can meet that tight deadline.  Employees that are seen arriving early, leaving late, and sending emails at all hours are positively reinforced for their hard work and dedication. But we should be careful what we reinforce. Long hours do not necessarily equate to better business results. Even if they do; what is the cost?  Poor quality work that causes re-work, high stress levels that impact healthcare costs and absenteeism, burn out and turnover. But how do we break the cycle of “yes”?  Here are some ways managers can lead the change:

  • Be aware of the message your own behavior sends.  Long hours at the office and emails sent at midnight send a message (purposeful or inadvertent) that the same is expected of direct reports.
  • Model good time management by carving out chunks of time on your calendar for thinking, creative problem solving, uninterrupted project work, and something that is critically important—coaching direct reports.
  • Explicitly encourage your direct reports to disconnect in order to have quality time to devote to important tasks.
  • Insist that direct reports take time off. Tell direct reports you expect them to have time off with their families.  And be sure to positively reinforce them for doing so.  Encouraging time off and then grilling them about a missed deadline will send a clear message about your true priorities.

If you commit to this, for a week or even a month, you might just find that you and your team are just as productive, if not more so, but more importantly, the natural reinforcement in what you do will be greater. Some work may fall through the cracks, but with a clear focus on critical behaviors that drive business results, what falls through the cracks shouldn’t be of import.  By focusing on the behaviors that matter and enabling focused time for those behaviors, you will protect and encourage the natural reinforcers that drive exemplary performance.   And chances are you will find you enjoy work again.

Posted by Judy Agnew, Ph.D.

As senior vice president of safety solutions, Judy spends her time helping clients create sustainable safety cultures. She also helps clients with strategy execution beyond safety, and general management and leadership improvement across cultural and generational differences.