Most people these days complain about being overloaded at work although some, generally younger employees, moan about being underloaded, their talents not fully utilized. Patricia Katz, a productivity and balance consultant based in Saskatoon, says it's time employees and employers started having honest conversations about "rightloading."
It's a balanced term she likes to use, an optimistic term, and she is an optimist. She has already had a good laugh at the day's particularly scathing and cynical Dilbert cartoon, a favourite of her husband, who works for the government. The cartoon illustrates the sentiments she often hears in workplaces where she offers advice. But she also believes Dilbert doesn't reflect the positive current that runs through workplaces. "I am an optimist about people's intentions in the workplace. I don't think senior people mean to burn everyone out," she says.
The conversations she wants us to have must be ongoing. After all, you may be fine with your workload and then an elder person in your life falls, breaks a hip, and you have a new, important demand on your time. "What was the right load for you last week is not the right load this week, and it needs to be addressed," she says.
So let's look at some of the things employers and employees might tell each other in such conversations, starting with employees to employers:
Rejig projects as work unfolds.
Just as when we start tearing down the walls in a home renovation project we find out there are unanticipated factors to grapple with, don't set out a plan and deadline for employees and assume nothing needs to be changed later. The project plan starts with guesses, but employees can feed you real information as work progresses. "The pointy-haired bosses don't want to hear it," she says, alluding to Dilbert. "But they need to hear it. If they don't listen they won't get good information as employees shut up and they will make decisions on bad information."
Stay current with our world.
As bosses move up the ladder, they lose touch with the reality of the frontlines. "If you're making decisions on goals and targets, how familiar are you with what is required to deliver it?" she asks.
Actively renegotiate goals.
No individual or team has unlimited capacity. So when you add three new goals or projects, address what might need to be cut or handled in a different way. Make it clear to staff that when you delegate something, they can tell you the impact it will have on what is already on the go and discuss options. Indeed, more generally open the door to conversations on load. "Welcome questions about conflicts. When we do express concern, listen, explore and respond," she says on behalf of employees.
Ditch what isn't needed.
Staff chafe at writing reports and filling out forms that they know aren't read by anybody and are time wasters. When employees are overloaded, they have no patience for such redundant, bureaucratic tasks.
Hold slackers to account.
There's nothing worse than working your tail off when the person at the next desk is totally unproductive. Often that's somebody who has been shuffled through different departments, nobody willing to hold the offender to account. This is an explosive issue amongst employees – a matter of corporate and leadership will. Address it.
Employers might want to tell employees:
Speak up about your needs.
Employers, after all, can't read your minds. "If you're experiencing health issues, facing eldercare or childcare problems, let us know," she says, speaking for employers. "If something has changed in your personal life that affects your ability to focus at work, fill us in. It's impossible to offer help when we're in the dark about the problems."
Take advantage of the options we've already made available.
Many employers are frustrated, she says, because they have offered programs like flextime, employee assistance programs, and family days that are being ignored by employees. Yet those employees claim they are overloaded. Try those programs out. They aren't meant to expose you as a weakling, but to help everyone cope better.
Take charge of your workload.
Take personal responsibility for what is in your control rather than whining about everyone else making your life miserable. How many burdens have you assumed, for example, that are discretionary – your choice, rather than management's? Understand your priorities for the week and be able to state them when management comes with urgent other requests, reminding them of what already is on your plate. Red flag conflicts that occur, rather than grousing over them.
Accept accommodation as a two-way street.
Ms. Katz works with a national accounting and consulting firm, where January through April is the busy season. The executives can't understand employees, often young, who announce that they are planning to take three weeks in March to wander around Thailand. Know what's appropriate and what is ridiculous given your organization's goals and work schedule.
Watch out for colleagues.
As people get increasingly frustrated in stressful workplaces, offer a helping hand when needed. If someone has had a rough morning, invite them to lunch. Lend an ear. "Watch out for each other in organizations rather than letting each other slide downhill to long-term stress," she says.
Take your vacation and breaks.
One university employee mentioned to Ms. Katz she has 17 weeks of accrued vacation because there never seems to be a good time to take a vacation. There may not be. But employers actually prefer you take vacations and rest breaks, so you can be refreshed and more productive.
Life doesn't have to be a Dilbert cartoon, a dialogue of the deaf. "If we can start out with the assumption that others mean well we can make some inroads. Solving overload is not someone else's responsibility. It's a shared responsibility," she concludes.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter