overworked employee

A recent article in Harvard Business Review (HBR for short) has again brought up the issue of employee burnout. The article surveys the research on employee burnout and top 5 reasons of burnout as identified by Gallup. It also endorses the views of Christina Maslach that the causes of the burnout do not lie at the individual’s level. However, the solution proposed is still at individual level (motivating / challenging etc). We argue that a system level problem has to be dealt at the system level. It does not help to search for answers at individual level.

To understand this, look no farther. Let’s just think through how organizations manage their communications.

Yes, let us talk about the email. Email is well-recognized as a large time sink in the workplace. It’s a bigger sink so if you are higher up in the organizational ladder. Yet, we tend to ignore this elephant in the room when we talk about employee productivity, simply because we do not know how to deal with it. We may put up some spam filters, but that just takes care of a part of the problem.

Instead of solving the system problem at the system level, we push it into the individual’s territory, making the lives of the employees miserable. Let’s see how.

The System

Let’s list a few bullet points to describe our communication system:

  • Everyone in the organization is given an email id
  • That email id is published to the internal and external people, using which the communication gets routed to that person
  • As long as we write to that email id, we assume that the person is kept in loop.

Minor variations to this theme are practised sometimes, like using department email id instead of individuals. These variations have their own pros and cons.

Notice how, by design, several problems are pushed into the individual’s territory:

  1. Email overload: If the individual receives too much communication that they find it challenging to keep track of it (plus, do their job), then that’s the individual’s problem. Most of the email is irrelevant, often cc:ed just to keep the person in loop. (Add to it the email spam and other non-email channels like Facebook/Twitter that add to the distraction.) But it causes context-switching and tires the brain.
  2. Work overload: If the individual gets requests from various unrelated sources, everyone expects the individual to respond to them in a timely fashion. If these requests get overwhelming, again it’s the individual’s problem.
  3. Poor planning: If the individual receives poorly planned work, it may take overly large time than what is assigned. Again it is the individual’s problem as to how to cope up with it.

Most employees suffer silently. They keep dealing with the high context-switching, high workload, and the resultant high pressure in their own way. If they voiced that they cannot handle it, they feel that they might be seen as inefficient and complaining. Everyone else is blissfully unaware of their problems. Even when others are aware, they cannot help much as the problem is at the individual’s level.

Some clever people escape this by announcing to their subordinates that they do not look at their email. (Now it becomes the responsibility of their subordinates to check the email and update them verbally. The problem is pushed to their subordinates.)

… Causes Burnout

Consider a manager… let’s call him Rama, who handles a product support engagement and receives 150+ emails a day. When Rama opens his email in the morning, it takes 15 minutes just to fetch all the messages from the server. It then takes him about 4 hours to go through them and meaningfully prioritize the day’s work for his subordinates. By the time he is done, already over half a day is gone, and there is far less time to complete the work. Rama’s team gets regarded as an unproductive team. In the meanwhile, the emails keep increasing, follow-ups and escalations now getting added to the already huge email stream.

The 5 reasons of employee burnout as identified in the HBR article, can all be seen as related to the communication system issue:

  1. Unfair treatment: Most organizations are blind to the employee’s side of story because that is hidden in the heaps of email within the employee’s mailbox. They therefore do not have the means to do a fair assessment to assess the employee’s performance against the odds that they may be facing. On the other hand, if some officials at a company were doing some deliberate discrimination, even that is difficult to trace in most cases because the story may be fragmented across various individual mailboxes.
  2. Unmanageable Workload: No one but the employee knows how much work they get from various sources and how much email they get bombarded with every day. So the heavy workload is difficult to show easily.
  3. Lack of Role Clarity: The boundaries of the individual roles are blurred, especially for employees who have been at the organization for a long time. Different people have different expectations from them, and it becomes difficult to cope up with those.
  4. Lack of Communication and Support from Their Managers: In most cases, the managers find it challenging to support employees because they are overwhelmed by their own woes. On the other hand, the cases where bad managers show insensitivity to their subordinates get missed out in the mailboxes. They might keep doing it for years — alienating the best employees from the organization.
  5. Unreasonable Time Pressure: It results out of requests from too many sources, badly planned work, communications received at the last minute, and unsolicited email sucking a lot of productive time. Again, the problem gets difficult to notice because it is buried in individual mailboxes.

… And Inefficiency

While the time sucked away in dealing with a lot of email itself acts negatively on one’s efficiency, the context-switching also tires the brain. On top of it, once an employee gets burnt out, their productivity nosedives.

What else would you expect?

The Wrong Medicine

Many organizations who care and want to sincerely help out try to address the problem at the employee level. Such attempts can include:

  • Training the employee on managing time, or managing email or some similar skill
  • Showering the employee with motivational speeches
  • Creating assignments that would intellectually stimulate the employee and/or grow them professionally

Many organizations are surprised that such initiatives intended to solve the burning problems of employees get a limited buy-in, if at all, from the same employees. They do not understand that their overworked employees see it just as additional work.

While you organize the best the time management training for your employees, they are looking out of the window wondering how much email might have piled up while they are gone. They cut short their lunch recess and rush to their desk to check if there are any immediate fires.

Further, in some companies employees dread vacations. They fear the endless tiring days they would have to face once they resume work.

For these reasons, such initiatives may even be perceived negatively and repelled by employees.

The Right Medicine

If the problems are created at system level, they need to be resolved at the system level.

Ask yourselves if you could change the system so that:

  • The organization has some way to understand the workload of an individual quantitatively
  • The organization has a way to understand the context-switching that an employee goes through
  • Employees get helped in terms of not missing out on important communications or tasks waiting on them
  • etc..

If you could implement such a system, then you would be able to catch the causes of burnout before they happen, take actions to avoid it and raise the productivity of your people.

At Acism, we created a tool, Kommbox, that attempts to address the problem through centralizing communications and increasing the visibility about them. We use it on our engagements. We plan to add some bells and whistles to it in 2020.

[Credit: Featured Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay]

Employee Burnout / Inefficiency is a System Problem

One thought on “Employee Burnout / Inefficiency is a System Problem

  • December 16, 2019 at 8:58 am

    Well argued, Ashish! In fact, Deming, and the entire body of practices called Japanese Management will agree with you. They even have a word, Muri, which means overburden, and Muri is seen as one of the major causes of quality issues.
    As an aside, one wonders whether people at the HBR and similar other shops, maintain a fairly unchanging list of eternal issues, and keep returning to it in turns to fill up their pages when they run out of stuff to write on. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *