More companies are moving from hours-based work to measuring productivity, but leaders frequently … [+]
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My very first job was in a cheese factory, moving large wheels of cheese around a stone-cold warehouse. I clocked in, did my hours, and clocked out when my shift was over.
Today, the rise of the knowledge economy has transformed work for millions of people who are now employed for their intellectual capital, be it their ability to close a deal, turn a complainant into a happy customer, or to write a report.
In 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported that in the U.S., knowledge work occupations, which involve handling or using information, “have been adding more jobs than any other since the 1980s — about 1.9 million per year. The other categories are growing too, but only by about 100,000 to 250,000 per year.”
With knowledge work there’s always one more deal to close, one more customer to satisfy and one more report to be researched. And this–coupled with the trend to move from hours-based work to measuring productivity–can be a recipe for burnout if leaders and managers underestimate how long tasks take.
As such, a new survey of 1,000 U.S. workers by Emplify, found 62% believe they are currently suffering from burnout. Of these, almost a third (32%) experience burnout weekly, and more than a fifth (21%) experience it every single day.
‘Leaders cannot allow workaholism to go unchecked’
Courtney Keene, director of operations at MyRoofingPal, which connects people with home improvement contractors across the U.S., warns that even in companies with healthy cultures, the workaholic tendencies of some employees can either slip through the cracks or be celebrated as “going above and beyond”.
Last year, she found out that one worker in their customer support team was routinely putting in 12+hour days. She recalls: “Because this worker was remote, we weren’t monitoring the time she was spending outside of her contracted hours. We just noticed the quality of her work slipping, and one of her colleagues told us she was frequently answering customer support tickets as late as 10 or 11pm.”
The startup had simply reached the point where it needed extra customer support. But instead of telling her managers, the hard-working employee endeavoured to take on the work on herself.
Keene explains: “Later, when we sat down to talk to her, she told us she didn’t like seeing tickets sit, and said she would just knock a few out between other things she was doing at home. She described it as a compulsion. Only, in her case, a few cases would turn into hours of extra work we weren’t even aware she was doing.”
When the company hired another person to share the workload, the employee’s stress levels dropped and the quality of her work improved.
Part of the problem may be that productivity-based work, where timekeeping is not required, is … [+]
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The big problem with tracking productivity
Experts say the pressure to perform and please can be taken to an unhealthy extreme when certain individuals work for organizations that tell employees they can work whatever hours they choose, ‘as long as their work gets done’, widely considered to be a benefit of knowledge work.
Harley Lippman, CEO of Genesis10, a professional IT staffing and services firm, says most knowledge workers have a sense of self-motivation that causes them to “run hot”. He adds: “They go the extra mile and sacrifice themselves to the task. Often, the internal pressure to excel and meet deadlines is stronger than the pressure coming from management or the client.”
This may be because productivity-based work, where timekeeping is not required, is viewed as a career milestone, says Chas Fields, strategic advisor at Kronos, who consults with large organizations on the employee experience.
He explains: “Typically it means salaried, white-collar, and with a certain degree of flexibility that is not available to hourly or frontline employees who must be present to do their jobs. Most don’t realize this also means their employer loses sight of how much they’re actually working.”
Fields says that to support both physical as well as mental health, knowledge workers should think about timekeeping as protection instead of a burden.
A toxic culture of overtime is a recipe for burnout
The problem can, of course, be made worse by company culture, and the behavior of leaders and managers, which is mirrored by staff.
Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in Japan, where more than a fifth of workers clock up an average of 49 hours or longer at work each week, compared to 16.4% of workers in the U.S., 12.5% in the U.K. and 10.1% in Germany.
In 2018, workers in Japan took only 52.4% of the paid leave they were entitled to, according to Government figures reported by the BBC. Japan even has a word for death by overwork: ‘karoshi’.
A businessman sleeps on a bench at a Tokyo train station
AFP via Getty Images
Time management coach Alexis Haselberger advises leaders to tell employees to disconnect from work in the evenings, on weekends and on vacations, and to model this behavior themselves.
She adds: “Studies show that true breaks increase our sense of well being, our productivity and our creativity. If senior staff insist on sending emails on evenings and weekends, then they should at least use ‘schedule send’ to ensure they are received the following day.”
Leaders at U.K. startup MoneyTransfers believe they’ve found a healthy way to move away from an hours-based working model. Founder Jonathan Merry explains: “An objective-led company is something you hear people talking about all the time, but actually implementing it requires a major shift in thinking.”
Smaller objectives and tasks tied to the company’s quarterly objectives are assigned weekly to the team, and are each given a score from one to 10 to indicate the complexity of a task and the time it will likely take to complete. These estimated scores are reviewed at the end of every week, to determine their accuracy.
Merry says: “In this way, we can continuously assess the burden on individual team members and improve the reliability of our scoring. We always aim to push ourselves but we have to accept limitations because, as the saying goes, Rome was not built in a day.”