A senior employee, let's name him Alex, is pacing outside the executive conference room doors. He is waiting for his manager to get out of her meeting. Alex has been trying to get time with his boss, but she is continuously in back-to-back meetings all day. If he can walk and talk with her as she heads to her next meeting, he can get her input on a few critical items. Sure, ambushing her is not ideal, but he can't wait for another 8 pm email exchange with her. Between late nights working from home and a workload that seems never to slow down, Alex is overwhelmed. His wife is increasingly annoyed by the constant late working hours. His available time with his daughter is increasingly shrinking because of work demands. To be fair, his boss probably feels overwhelmed, too.

The experience of work for Alex and his boss described above is not unique. In a recent study, Deloitte, a management consulting firm, found that 70 percent of organizations believe work has become too complicated. From contributing factors like the ubiquity of technology and the flexibility to work anywhere, globalization, innovation, sales demands, and even the rate of change, these trends drive leaders to push out more work and green-light more company-wide projects. Unfortunately, companies do not know how to counteract the sense of exhaustion that accompanies employees' sense of feeling overwhelmed.  

So, what is a company to do? Solutions to this growing problem will vary based on culture and workplace climate, industry, and even company lifecycle. However, there are business practices and leadership mindsets that, when evaluated, can reveal how their impacts effect workloads and ultimately employees' response to performance expectations.

Where to Look for Causes to Employees Feeling Overwhelmed

1.    How are projects prioritized?

A lack of clarity--goals, priorities, and expectations--will undermine momentum, progress, and results. A set of company-wide disciplines that align company and team objectives, key results, and tactics down to the employee level helps keep a focus on what is most important to the company, the team, and each employee. Leaders must develop the discipline of prioritizing projects and understanding the tension between progress and employee capacity to deliver results.

2.    Is there progress in work assignments and projects?

Theresa Amabile, Harvard Business School professor, explains in her book, The Progress Principle, (co-authored with Steven Kramer) the catalysts that help employees create progress in their work. When project teams continue to experience delays and setbacks, their commitment begins to wane. When work piles up, and there is no movement towards completing it, feeling overwhelmed should not be a surprise. Company leaders need to understand how politics, positioning for power, and hidden agendas influence which projects are prioritized. Just adding more people to projects is hardly a workable long-term solution.

3.    What do your performance management practices rewarded and recognize?

What do your performance management practices reinforce? If employees are punished for failure they will do whatever they can to avoid blame, including working long hours. Is there an unbalanced emphasis on success versus exploration, or trying new ways to achieve desirable outcomes? Look at what you reward and recognize. It will help you understand how employees prioritize their work. In the absence of rewards or recognition (feedback), employees will conclude what high performance is. You won't likely agree with their choices.

4.    How are you deepening employees' technical and soft skills?

Future-proof your teams by investing in their professional development. The focus needs to include equipping employees with the skills to adapt to change. Additionally, zero in on growing interpersonal skills essential for working in teams.

5.    How do employees stay informed?

It is an unnecessary distraction not to know what is going on in the company. Intranets, blogs from executives, robust chat technology, video conferencing, weekly town halls, and productive meetings are practical solutions for keeping everyone informed. Remove the distraction of not knowing about critical decisions, achieved milestones, or customer success or flops. In the absence of no information, employees will use other methods to find out what is going on in the company.

And for the sanity of everyone, stop sending employees emails after 6 pm. Today's email applications have the functionality to write and schedule emails to be sent during your team's working hours. "Just one more email" is one more thing for employees to do when they should be enjoying time off from work.

6.    Do you screen for "team-ability" in your hiring practices?

Coworkers who are unable to work in a team create drama. Today the nature of work requires people to rely on one another. When high performers conclude they cannot rely on team members, they often take on the task themselves. Eventually, they flameout, burnout, and/or leave. In your recruiting practices, screen for candidates' ability to work in teams.

7.    Do you grow your middle-managers' leadership capabilities?

The most significant influence on employees' experience of work is their immediate boss's skills. Underdeveloped managers often are unaware how their leadership style impacts their teams. The quality and tone of interactions and relationships with employees are negatively affected.  

No organization can deliver breakout results when its employees are unable to recover from work. While it is easier to worry and ruminate about the causes of overwhelmed employees, organizations who want business and employee success find solutions.

Some solutions are easier to implement, developing employees or implementing various communication tactics, for example. Others require more coordination across the company. The key is to pay attention to the signs, like Alex pacing outside the office merely to grab time with his boss.

Published on: Oct 14, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.