Tackling Overload

Research insights for reducing burnout and supporting your staff

by Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen

The last few months have likely been crazy for you and your employees. But many professionals and managers were feeling exhausted and burned out even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Overload is the sense that there is too much asked of you and your team, given limited resources. This is a classic definition of stress: too many demands, coupled with too few resources (such as time or staff) to accomplish what is needed or expected. We learned about overload in our study of the IT division of a U.S. Fortune 500 firm. But it isn’t just high-tech jobs or large firms where workers feel frantic and worn down. More than a third of employed Americans agree or strongly agree that there is “too much work to do it well” in their current jobs

The focus of our five-year study was on the work, family and health circumstances of about 1,000 employees of a large, tech-oriented company, with the goal of testing a potential solution to the stress, burnout and turnover this firm was facing. We aimed for a work redesign that would benefit both the employees and the employer. What we found were time-starved employees who didn’t feel supported or able to manage the multiple obligations they faced.

Professionals, managers and executives tend to work long hours, and their hours may stretch to connect with colleagues or clients around the globe. But many organizations still operate with “face time” cultures, where being in the office and being visibly busy is important for getting ahead, even if you’re also on 6 a.m. status calls and presenting to clients at 10 p.m. New communication technologies combine with management pressure to push employees to be always accessible, ready to respond to phone or text questions at almost any hour. We found conference and video calls allow workers to be “in a meeting” while simultaneously reading email and active on chat.

Because employees are not able to have periods of uninterrupted time to concentrate during their work day, many accomplish their “real work” — the technical work or the market analysis or the strategizing about what’s next — late at night or on weekends. High demands and pressures contributed not only to a sense of overload, but also had negative repercussions for employees’ work quality, leading to disengagement and even exits from the firm.

Popular discussions of “work-life balance” and flexible work arrangements are usually oriented to parents and other caregivers. But in our study we discovered that the core difficulty is about overload — how to manage all that one is asked to do at work. Intensified work expectations are a problem not just for caregivers of children or aging family members; they touch the lives of men and women of all ages and life stages, including those with no pressing family responsibilities.

The work redesign initiative implemented as part of our study aims to tackle overload and make flexibility the default, so that everyone feels supported and in control. Teams talk together about how they work — with everyone welcome to identify changes they’d like to pursue — and managers emphasize supporting employees’ personal lives along with their professional goals. The core expectation is that the work needs to get done and the team needs to coordinate and communicate effectively. (All the training materials are available, for free, at Harvard University’s Work, Family and Health Network.)

Did it work?

The employees and managers in this study often changed their everyday work practices, including:

  • More work at home (at the employees’ discretion, with team coordination);
  • More variable schedules and more comfort taking an hour or two off when needed;
  • More deliberate coordination but fewer meetings and fewer people pulled into a given meeting; and
  • Agreement that it was fine to turn off the chat and email to do the “heads down” or “real work” during the day, with team norms about when and how to interrupt each other when necessary.

In interviews, we repeatedly heard how much employees appreciated being able to decide what worked for them and how they felt supported and trusted.

By comparing survey responses and company data for employees who went through the work redesign program and their “control group” peers who didn’t, we documented positive changes in burnout, stress, mental health and sleep. We also found benefits for families, with employees more likely to report having enough time with families and less work-life conflict.

The firm also saw benefits in the form of higher job satisfaction and lower burnout. There was 40 percent lower voluntary turnover for employees and managers participating in the work redesign program than for their peers working under the old company policy. In part because of lower turnover, the estimated return on investment was about 1.6, meaning that even if the company had paid outright for every hour of training and accounted for every moment needed to implement this change, they would have saved $1.60 for every $1 spent.

The message is that we can create work cultures where the work gets done, and done well, while employees and firms thrive. There’s no simple, one-size-fits-all policy to roll out, but redesigning work, together with the employees, is a promising start.

Erin L. Kelly is a professor of work and organization studies at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Phyllis Moen is a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. Kelly and Moen are the authors of the new book “Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do about It.”

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