Workload: Sink or Swim – It’s Mostly Perception
Updated: May 18
Photo by alphaspirit/shutterstock.com
The premise of this article: Workload stresses too many admin people close to and past their breaking point. It makes them miserable in their work and that directly impacts the quality and quantity of their output. It’s bad for the employer and terrible for the worker. And largely unnecessary. “Excessive” workload is in your imagination…..if you’re working for the right kind of company, and the right kind of manager. (I hope you are.)
I’ve been interviewing a lot recently and one of the more amusing questions I get is, “Tell us about a time when you were faced with excessive workload.” A time? In the last 20 years I’ve had only a handful of weeks where the workload didn’t exceed my ability to complete it.
Have I just admitted defeat? Revealed poor prioritization or planning skills, an inability to deal effectively with things? No. Here’s surprising fact number one. “Getting it all done” probably has little value. In fact, I’ve come to suspect that an environment where it’s genuinely impossible to get everything done may be the best way for work to be managed…..if both management and staff see the accompanying issues the right way.
I maintain that
Having more than we can do is not necessarily “excessive”. In a well-managed organization staff can have more work than can be completed, it is not excessive, and it needn’t cause staff stress. This article explains these seeming contradictions.
“Excessive workload” connotes an inability on our part to deal with it, so let’s discard the term. We DO have the ability to deal with it, very effectively – but not by working harder or longer or even by getting it all done.
The sometimes overwhelming stress that accompanies workload is a negative product of our positive ethics. We feel compelled to get it all done because we feel a responsibility to our employer, our department, our colleagues and to ourselves, our image and our own sense of self-worth. Getting it all done is success; not getting it all done is failure. This is a bad outcome that started in a good place. We need a perspective and a strategy that keeps the work ethic and the drive it generates but jettisons the stress.
Stop Waiting For “Normal” To Return
Staff and managers run right off a cliff and crack trying to hold out, month after month, for the return of “normal” when things will be “like they were before”. When was that? A year ago? Three? If the overload hasn’t let up in six months, stop waiting. “Normal” like you knew it before is not coming back. Don’t despair! I’m writing this because the new normal doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can even be useful for maximizing value produced against hours worked (see “Round File”, next section). But the first and biggest mistake you can make is nostalgic delay, waiting for the return of the olden days, while you slowly (or quickly) fry yourself into a state of mental anxiety that changes you in ways you won’t like.
It’s OK, Maybe Even Good, To Round File Some Tasks
In case anyone’s not familiar with one of my favorite idioms, the “round file” is the garbage can.
Early in my career I expressed concern to a manager that new work was coming in so fast we would never get some tasks done. His answer: That’s OK. As long as you’re prioritizing correctly, the things you don’t have time to do probably didn’t need doing anyway.
This is usually true, and what’s ALWAYS true is that if we’re prioritizing correctly then we’re completing the highest value tasks. The things that remain undone are not necessarily without any value, but are overridden by things that create more value, which is never a bad deal.
The critical element here is close coordination and communication with your manager and other supervisory staff until you have a firm grasp on their priorities and what’s acceptable to “round file”.
Perspective Is Everything
A manager I admire was absolutely unruffled, no matter what was happening. An even demeanor is often seen in good managers but this guy was the epitome of calm in a storm. I asked him how he achieved such serenity. His answer: I was in Viet Nam where people tried to kill me. After that, nothing that happens here seems so bad.
Most of us can’t, and wouldn’t want to, replicate the life experience that provided him such a valuable perspective. That doesn’t mean we can’t have the perspective. It’s going to be more difficult without the first-hand knowledge of true horror. But we can be aware of the realities that so many of our coworkers have been through in their lives, realities they may share with us. War, illness, disaster, death. Is a frustrating process really worth the level of angst we’ve traditionally awarded it? Probably not.
What Is My Responsibility – REALLY?
After acquiring a reputation for being reasonably imperturbable myself, I would get calls from staff stressed to the point of rage, tears and sick days by the unreasonable, unquenchable, insurmountable workload. I tried to pass on to them a sense of what our responsibility is – really.
Staff often believe our responsibility is to accomplish all tasks given us, regardless of volume or ability to achieve this objective. Does your job description state that you are expected to execute those tasks an infinite number of times to process an infinite volume of work? No. In fact, it likely says nothing at all about volume expectations. Executing the tasks is your responsibility; the volume is not. You are not responsible for staff reductions, sales increases, equipment failure rates, the weather or the number of shares moved on the stock exchange – whatever it is that drives long-term volume trends in your world.
Employees from entry level to management often think that drawing a line between “my responsibility” and “not mine” as I am suggesting is akin to the rightly despised “that’s not my job” in terms of negative sentiment. I see them very differently.
Knowing with an absolute logical and emotional certainty that overall volume is a management responsibility and not my responsibility does not preclude active involvement in the issue. We can be interested in the issue, we can be concerned, we can and should have ideas for solving it and be submitting those ideas to management for consideration, but having concern and being responsible are two entirely different things. There is a fine but crucial line between being driven to find solutions, to fix problems, regardless of responsibility, and actually being the person responsible. I – you – cannot take on the responsibility for a volume that you have no power to control. Further, you do a disservice to the employer if your assumption of any of that responsibility lets the truly responsible party off the hook and allows them to fail at their responsibility, their job.
Are you still feeling uneasy about how this attitude will make us look to everyone we’re (rightly) trying to impress with our dedication? OK – how does it look when you’re angry, two weeks behind, error-prone, or absent every other week because some days you just can’t face it? If workload stress is taking a toll on you and your performance the “how does it look” ship has sailed. For myself, I feel just fine about how I look maintaining a “responsibility line,” a 99.96% accuracy rate, 99.84% attendance and a continuous stream of ideas, innovation and contribution beyond my job description. Mentally limiting the scope of my responsibility is crucial to delivering that level of performance to my employer. Exceptional performance, if I may be so bold.
I Can Change It
A central theme of my philosophy is that non-management admin can influence the workplace and sometimes effect substantial change.
There are still organizations that don’t welcome change coming from the bottom up but that attitude was more prevalent in the past than it is now. The idea that all change and good ideas are a top-down affair will continue to fade and the opportunity for admin staff to make significant, even major, contributions will only grow. I believe it’s almost inevitable because (cliché alert) change is a constant, it’s coming faster all the time, and the corporate strategy with the highest likelihood of success is “all hands on deck”.
There simply are not enough managers in any organization to solve the volume of challenges piling up outside the corporate bulwarks, and companies that insist on sidelining the ideas and initiative of any level of staff are going to be rolled over by the competition that’s harnessing every piece of energy available within their walls.
In that spirit, don’t always ask for permission to make your ideas take flight. If an idea is reasonably within your sphere to implement and the worst possible scenario if it goes wrong is minimal damage (and NO public or legal damage), consider “just doing it”. Too often the default answer from management is no, or a yes requires four levels of approval for something that shouldn’t need any. The organizations that most desperately need your ideas put to work NOW are probably that way because they’re the least likely to say yes to them, if you ask. Going it alone is a risk you have to assess with care, but being successful never comes without some chances taken.
Believe that you can make change, but when you need to get authorization for change don’t be discouraged if the success rate on your proposals is under 50%. Your manager’s probably is too! It’s better to have a 30% success rate on ten ideas than a 100% success rate on one idea.
I’ve written above about ideas and philosophies. Here are specific strategies. Try some…and let me know what works for you that hasn’t made my list. I am not yet that calm manager I so admired, and I could use your help getting there.
1. Take It To Your Manager
Talk to your manager about prioritizing and eliminating the least valuable work. But don’t ask – recommend. Going in with a problem and its solution is what you should always be doing. Figure out the prioritization yourself and determine what low priority matters can be dropped and why.
If you’re instituting prioritize and eliminate where it did not previously exist as a workload strategy, don’t have just one conversation with your manager. Check in with them as you eliminate other tasks, until you’re both certain you understand the prioritization and what’s safe to eliminate.
2. Implement Client Relationship Management (CRM)
Workload issues often create client issues and client issues create workload issues in a vicious circle. Break the circle with focused application of Client Relationship Management, a subject in its own right that I’ve written about.
3. Checklist Complex, Multi-Step Tasks
If you’re accidentally missing tasks or steps within tasks, create checklists. Some people regard checklists as crutches that shouldn’t be necessary, as if they indicate a lack of intelligence. The opposite is true. Look at the types of jobs that habitually rely on checklists, jobs like airline pilot and astronaut. Checklists are often the sign of an enormous complexity, being successfully dealt with by someone keenly aware of that complexity and successfully addressing it. A checklist says “I’m smart” and the accuracy they’ll help you achieve yells it. I didn’t get to 99.96% accuracy without them.
4. Audit Your Use of Time
How did you spend your last 40 hour workweek – exactly? What did you do? How much of those 40 hours can you actually account for? In hectic jobs I can usually account with precision for only half of my time. I know I’m busy, I know when I’m being productive (and not) but it’s impossible to identify all the little things that I did and how long they took.
If a lot of your tasks take 5 minutes, consider that your workweek contains 480 5-minute segments. Of course you can’t remember the details of what you did!
Using whatever program seems easiest (I use Excel), log how you use your time. I use a table with tasks in the columns and 5-minute increments in the rows. You may be able to get away with 10 or 15 minute increments but you’ll miss the value of the exercise if your increments are so large you don’t record the small stuff that can make up a surprising portion of your week.
This should not take a lot of time (which you don’t have, which is why you’re doing it). I only spend a few minutes during the day to record time spent on each task, 3 minutes at the end of the day to add up a total time for each column and maybe 15 minutes per week to transfer each days’ time totals to a tracking spreadsheet.
What does this accomplish? Whenever I’ve had workload issues this strategy has always turned up at least one surprise about how I’m using my time. There is always something that I’m putting far more effort into than I thought and quite possibly more than the value being derived from the investment.
If you don’t see something you can change to reduce your workload take the results to your manager. Are they going to find that you’ve been doing something wrong with your time allocation? Actually, you hope so. Whatever fault may exist in your use of time should be more than compensated for by the fact that you recognized a problem and took specific constructive action to fix it. The most valuable employee in the world is one who makes a mistake, recognizes it and fixes it.
I am chastened to admit one of the likely surprises in this exercise is the amount of “water cooler” time discovered by those of us who smugly consider ourselves to be dedicated, grindstone-loving, chatter-hating production machines. Unstructured chat time with colleagues is important for many reasons, but awareness of how much time is being spent on it is a good idea. It should be an intentional, conscious investment, not a willy-nilly whatever-strikes-my-fancy use of time. Awareness is vital to ensuring casual contact time is a healthy component of performance, not an inhibitor of performance.
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I write because I believe I have something to share that can help. But I also write in the hope that people will respond with their own stories and observations about what works. I’m not done learning and getting better at all of this. I would like to hear about your experiences and triumphs managing "unmanageable" workload.