Overworked? Overwhelmed? You Can Change the Pattern!

By Cheryl Magen

One of the highlights of being a career coach is seeing the enthusiasm of people beginning new jobs. They are excited and passionate, and determined to be successful. Increasingly, however, I have been seeing an unfortunate effect – these once-enthusiastic employees return a few years later, exhausted, overworked, and looking for a way out.

So what is going on out there?

Over the last decade, more and more of today’s workforce has become unable to keep pace with the unrealistic expectations we have set for workplace productivity. Generally, when people are hired for full-time jobs, they are being hired to do a number of different tasks. Let’s use the example of a teacher: for this “one job,” your workload includes a number of different tasks including items such as: developing a curriculum, teaching and mentoring students, grading papers, creating long-term assignments, meeting with parents, etc. In most jobs, after a few years, you will get much more efficient at about 20% of the tasks you were hired to perform. In the case of our teacher, developing a curriculum will probably take less time, as she will already have a solid model from which to work. However, on average, the other 80% of your work will not become significantly more efficient over time. On this point, it is important not to confuse efficiency with effectiveness. While our teacher will likely become significantly more effective at teaching, mentoring and partnering with parents, these activities will still take her roughly the same amount of time – she’ll just be better at them.

While the efficiency/effectiveness dichotomy seems clear enough to most people, it appears to be lost on too many of today’s employers. Indeed, at most jobs, just when employees start to become effective at their job, employers start to give them more to do. So the reward for good performance is a greater workload. At first, it may seem manageable, because you’re making up for that 20% of the job at which you’ve become more efficient. But as more added work continues to accumulate, it becomes harder and harder to get everything done during the designated workday. So now you are coming in early to get work done, you are staying late, you are taking work home. And you’re still taking on more because you want to “lean in” and say yes when you’re offered new opportunities and you want to be seen as a team player so you say yes to added responsibilities. And little by little, you keep saying yes until one day you wake up and you realize that your job has become untenable.

So now what?

The thing I hear over and over again from the people I coach is: “there is too much on my plate.” Talking about job responsibilities in terms of a plate is actually a good metaphor, as work really should only represent one course in the “meal” that is your life. From when we are very young, we are taught to “clean our plates,” which has resulted in a myriad of negative health consequences. Similarly, in the workplace context, when more and more is shoveled onto the work plate, you have no room left for anything else, no matter how delicious. This means that the sweetest parts of life – family, friends, passions, are passed over as we all desperately try to consume everything that’s been piled onto the work plate. And just like when we try to eat too much in real life, bingeing on work leaves us feeling sick, tired and unhappy. It’s not healthy and it has to stop – but how?

Ending this cycle is really a two-part process that will end up benefitting both employers and employees. On the one hand, even in the face of frequent budget cuts, employers must stop expecting a smaller group of employees to do a larger amount of work. Internalizing this lesson can have big benefits. First and foremost, employers don’t burn out their employees, which means organizations retain strong, experienced workers who are good at their jobs, instead of expending unnecessary time frequently hiring and training new people. Sometimes, in exchange for a better work-life balance, employees are willing to accept reduced compensation – studies show that 45% of working adults are willing to accept a pay cut in exchange for more flexibility. Also, employers need to see this process as an opportunity to be internally reflective and determine the core elements of their business. If organizations keep trying to do everything, they will lose their best people. But if they are willing to focus on what they do well and let go of certain extraneous tasks, they may actually end up much more successful.

On the flip side, employees need to learn how to “manage up” and advocate for themselves. This does not mean ridding a job description of every routine or distasteful task; rather this is an opportunity for an employee to discuss how they can best further the mission/vision of their organization. Having this sort of frank conversation requires both bravery and preparedness. A framework for these conversations that I’ve found very successful is the “Crucial Conversation” from Kerry Patterson’s best-selling book of the same name. In short, this paradigm requires the employee to:

  1. commit to seek mutual purpose (“We both care about what’s in the best interest of the organization”)
  2. recognize the purpose behind the strategy (“What I think we need to discuss is how the work expectation has been increasing”);
  3. brainstorm new strategies (“I’d like us to decide what could be delegated or dropped”); and
  4. agree to a new plan.

In particular, one of the best ways to “manage up” in this situation is to come to the conversation having already brainstormed possible solutions, so that you are not just complaining but are stepping up to help the organization achieve success.

I see so many employees who are afraid to have these sorts of conversations with their employers, and instead of advocating for themselves, they end up leaving jobs they love or remain in jobs and become increasingly unhappy. Although these discussions may seem daunting, reasonable expectations of employee productivity are actually in the best interests of all parties. Remember: while work is an important part of what defines us, our work plates shouldn’t be so full that we have room for nothing else.

Cheryl Magen is a career consultant who provides support to executives, educators and clergy in organizational strategies and leadership techniques. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, where she provides career coaching to students and alumni.