Work overload

Overloaded! The work never stops

How many unread emails are in your inbox? How many of them are older than a week? How many instant messages do you get each day? How many phone calls? How many meetings every week? How much “real” work — work that produces something — do you do each week? Do you feel like you get enough done? How many more work hours would you need to feel that way?

A trip back in time

When I was a young boy in Germany in the 1970s, my father, who worked as an HR manager for Germans employed by the US Army, worked from 7:30 am to 4:00 pm, with half an hour for lunch. Arriving home by 4:15 pm, he had enough energy left to do other things, like gardening or home repair, as well as spend time with family and friends. In those days, after work there was no email to answer, no conference calls, and no instant messages. Your work happened at the office, and when you left the office, your time was your own. Also, businesspeople took vacations to recharge while other colleagues took care of their work — something made possible by hiring adequate staff.

How has the workplace changed since then?

Office work today Now, most managers and knowledge workers regularly work much more than 40 hours per week. In many offices, overtime is the expected norm. Moreover, managers and staff are expected to check email and to be on call, including weekends and holidays.

As a result, businesspeople feel overloaded, and overloading makes things worse. Just as cramming too many clothes into a suitcase makes it difficult to close and carry, and putting too much food on your plate encourages you to overeat, giving one person too much work to handle can dishearten and demotivate them. When this overloading is constant, the situation can even feel hopeless. In my father’s time, people who enjoyed good work-life balance were the norm, but the opposite is true today.

How did this happen?

Three mutually reinforcing factors have led to this increase in workload:

  • To my father, technology meant telephone, telex and typewriter. Today we have an avalanche of new technologies to master — email, multiple instant messaging services, mobile phones, notebook computers, social media, online services, and of course all the related apps. It’s not really feasible to operate without these technologies, but it’s important to realize that they are not only a blessing, but also a major source of work overload.
  • Computers and the Internet have enabled the automation of work processes. This, combined with the realization that headcount reductions were an easy way to cut costs, led to corporations having multiple rounds of layoffs to “trim the excess fat” from the corporation. Those who fell victim to “rightsizing” joined the growing numbers of the unemployed, particularly in developed countries. Those who were lucky enough to survive soon realized that it came at a cost — they now had to do not only their jobs, but also those of their now-departed colleagues. And each fresh round of job cuts concentrated the work on fewer and fewer people.
  • Mobile devices and the Internet have created the third factor, the disappearance of the boundaries between work and life. If my father were doing his job today, he would no longer have evenings, weekends, and holidays to do with as he pleased. Instead he’d be like today’s office workers for whom work never seems to stop, something that makes them feel overloaded.

So what?

Overload leads to three major problems:

  1. Businesspeople are losing their good business etiquette. They don’t respond to inquiries in a timely manner, if at all. We’re all guilty of this. How many emails are in your inbox that you intended to reply to later, but then forgot about? Work overload makes us into worse communicators, which increases friction and reduces productivity in collaborative projects.
  2. Even worse, people who are overloaded for prolonged periods may burn out — which impairs their productivity and may even cause them to abandon their careers.
  3. Finally, work overload makes you less creative — and creativity is the fuel of innovation. Companies are realizing more and that innovation offers the only chance for them to continue to survive and flourish. But as companies continue to place ever-increasing demands on an ever-shrinking workforce, thus increasing each person’s workload, they also expect those overloaded workers to be increasingly creative. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. In my next column, I tell you how work overload and time pressure kill creativity, and what you can do to deal with this problem.


© Dr. Detlef Reis 2015. This article was published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on 16 April 2015.