A lot of companies are trying to “do more with less.” From a C-suite perspective, this sounds great because it means there is a higher return on investment (ROI) for the organization, with less expenditure on human capital. However, a big risk that many companies overlook until it’s too late is the risk of overwork. Luckily, we’ve put together a short guide on how to identify and mitigate overwork in your company!
What is overwork?
Overwork is a type of work that is far beyond what an employee can realistically take on at one time. Being overworked for long periods can cause burnout for employees, which makes them susceptible to poor workplace performance and mental health concerns. While there are many reasons overwork may occur, the common reasons are insufficient staffing, improper prioritization, misalignment, and miscommunication.
Signs of overwork
Team leads should always be on the lookout for symptoms of overwork to be sure that they can address any issues as early as possible. Some of these signs include:
- Prolonged working hours. If employees feel like they have too many activities on the go that they can’t complete in time, this is a sign that they need help prioritizing or need tasks reassigned to another member.
- Strained communication. If you’ve recently over-assigned tasks to an employee, they might feel some tension towards you (or the other colleague that is passing work to them). This issue will need some support in building effective communication strategies and feedback cycles.
- Withdrawal from socializing. Overworked employees are stressed out and will feel like any time spent socializing is time spent away from nearly overdue projects—even though socializing is good for their mental health and productivity!
- Increase in employee turnover. While there can be many reasons for higher turnover rates, they are often due to employees feeling burnt out. Sometimes employees won’t even let you know that they’ve been feeling overworked, which is why conducting regular one-on-ones is essential.
- Increased errors or mistakes. When time is of the essence, speed is the only thing that matters. When quality is becoming compromised, it may be because an employee either lacks motivation for the role or feels like they don’t have enough time in the day to dedicate to the smaller details.
- Struggle to meet deadlines. An employee with a lot on their plate will easily miss deadlines, even if they have a great project management system in place. It’s harder to follow up on all of the to-do items when there are so many, and this problem increases when the project’s complexity or difficulty increases, too.
Managing a team?
Take control of your team meetings by having collaborative meeting notes and encouraging accountability with action items. Try a tool like Fellow!
Strategies to help employees overcome overwork
- Avoid multitasking
- Turn to your peers for inspiration
- Set clear boundaries
- Help delegate tasks
- Create a supportive work environment
- Encourage breaks
- Triage new issues
- Try time management techniques together
- Lead by example
Multitasking actually tires your brain out, which makes you less productive in the long run. Burnout is a serious concern for organizations, with 77% of employees experiencing burnout at some point in their careers (and 51% experiencing it at least twice). Helping your employees divide tasks into clear and digestible action items is a better strategy to get more done and with a higher degree of quality. Better yet, include a due date on your action items to set realistic expectations for completion.
2Turn to your peers for inspiration
Sometimes it can be hard to know how to support your employees. Every month or so, try to make a practice of looking inside and outside your professional niche. Reach out to members of your industry community you trust and who can give you constructive feedback and ideas of solutions for preventing and mitigating overwork on their teams. Having this conversation with peers as opposed to chief executive officers (CEOs) and social media celebrities you don’t know, for example, will ensure the advice is more relevant and actionable for you. If you’re working in a large organization, you might also consider leading the development of an idea knowledge center or hub for managers to collaborate on this topic.
3Set clear boundaries
One of the simplest approaches to preventing and overcoming overwork is to set boundaries at work. Yet, this approach can also become one of the most challenging, especially when navigating the difficult conversations it might require with managers and colleagues. At the start of any new job opportunity or project, get an agreement on work hours and expectations for the role. It helps to ask your employees if there’s anything else on their plate that might interfere with the deadline or impact their performance in the role. Having this in writing will be useful for reminding all involved parties about the requirements. You can even encourage your team to push back when there are too many projects on the go, which helps them set healthy boundaries around overworking.
4Help delegate tasks
As a manager, you might be overworked too, especially if you feel committed to overseeing specific projects through to the end. Knowing how and when to delegate tasks is a great skill for any manager. Keeping an eye on your team’s workloads can ensure that you’re evenly distributing tasks based on availability, expertise, and growth opportunities. If you see one employee struggling with too many projects at once, be ready to step in and reassign some tasks to other employees who have more time to support the project.
5Create a supportive work environment
When employees feel like they’re working in a supportive work environment, they’re much more likely to reach out when they’re experiencing workload concerns. Setting up frequent opportunities for team collaboration, such as brainstorming meetings or sprint retrospectives, can allow your team members to communicate with each other and collaborate on solving blockers. Another part of creating a supportive work environment is fostering a psychologically safe space where employees can take educated risks without fear of harsh or unfair consequences.
Breaks are an easy way to prevent and mitigate overwork, but they’re also easy to forget about in the moment. As a manager, you can help your team with a few effective strategies, including:
- Setting a timer to remind the team every hour to take a few minutes away from the screen
- Creating team lunch opportunities to ensure everyone gets a break to eat
- Encouraging deep focus periods followed by a 20-minute break
- Practicing and encouraging others to practice the Pomodoro Technique
7Triage new issues
As work requests come into your team, you can prevent overwork concerns by being the “gatekeeper” of these requests. Start by filtering these requests by department and seeing what work is relevant to your team, or if any projects are more suitable for another team to take on. If a project is within your team’s responsibilities, then you can determine the urgency, level of experience, and time requirements to complete the request. From there, you can set expectations with the other department about when your team can realistically complete the task, considering the other things that are already on the team’s plate as well as the level of priority of the new task.
8Try time management techniques together
Some employees find it hard to learn time management skills independently, especially if they’ve never been taught before. Making practicing time management techniques into a team activity can be a great way to avoid singling out underperformers. Meeting regularly to discuss these practices can also provide a great space for high-performing employees to mentor other team members who are struggling to complete projects in time. If you’re taking this route, just keep an extra eye on your high performers to make sure they’re not getting overworked too.
9Lead by example
Great leaders are role models in their own right! Leading by example shows your team what overcoming overwork really looks like. For example, always take your lunch breaks and keep your phone turned off on vacations. Trusting that your team has it under control while you’re away goes a long way to support their autonomy and helps them see it’s acceptable to truly relax while on paid time off.
As another example, if you’re working with teams in different time zones, consider setting up a tool that enables asynchronous work so no one has to work odd hours. Practicing this style of work also shows your team members that you respect that they have their own schedules and preferred working hours.
Overcoming overwork requires a lot of preventative action. Adopting a workplace tool like Fellow can help you and other managers on your team oversee team workloads, assign action items, and ensure you’re still on track to achieving organizational goals. Not only does Fellow make collaboration easier so you can encourage team mentorship opportunities, but it also allows you to provide feedback seamlessly in meetings so your team knows how well they’re performing. It’s one step closer to building an engaged and aligned team that’s ready to grow together!