Avoiding the overwork overdose

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

I’ve talked a lot about the fact that I’m a doer. The kind of person who puts their head down and goes until the work is done.

And for an employer, that’s an awesome characteristic for me to have. Stuff just gets done. I would put in extra hours, miss lunch breaks, solve problems and say yes for the sake of ticking things off my to do list. Bonanza!!

My other self-defeating character trait is the desire to help others. I opt to do things to make other people’s lives easier, even when it detriments my own. When I was managing teams that meant I bore the brunt of any additional work because I didn’t want to cause stress and anxiety for my people.

So I have strong task focus coupled with a desire to shelter others from shittiness and it’s not a great combo.

I skipped meals. I worked stupid hours. I went to work when I wasn’t well. I answered emails on my phone as I lay in bed at night. I neglected my relationship.

What I learned over time is that my ‘dedication’ came at a huge cost. Myself.

Earlier this week I read a great article published by AHRI which ponders What will happen to this generation of overworked employees?

The article talks about a lot extreme, though very real, health impacts people face from burning the midnight oil too often including heart attacks, mental health problems and even death.

It’s an issue people leaders can’t afford to ignore. With many countries in Europe starting to ride the second COVID wave and with the economic impacts we’ve already weathered poised to decline further, organisations will continue to stand people down. Consequently expect the survivors to not only keep the lights on, but somehow improve profitability.

Your people are already stretched to, or beyond, breaking point.

Their resilience is low. So asking them to put more on their plate at this time is a risky move, but sadly and ultimately one that can’t be avoided.

So how can you ask people to do more without breaking them? I touched on this briefly in my HotHRTips earlier this week, but wanted to share some more fulsome information to support my fellow ‘dedicated’ people leaders.

1. Enable peak performance

You need you people to be as productive as possible in the time they dedicate to work, which means you need to remove the hurdles (usually ridiculous bureaucracy) that makes their performance decline.

Have a one-on-one with your people and ask them three key questions:

  • What is making your job harder?

  • What would make your job easier?

  • What would enable you to be more productive in your role?

It’s your job as their leader to eliminate or minimise the things that are holding them back, to enable or procure the things that would make their job easier and to support the things that will make them more productive.

I’m a morning person. My most productive hours are from 6:30am till early afternoon. If you want me to smash work out, that’s the prime time. Other people (like my husband annoyingly) are night owls. He hits his peak mid afternoon and can power through until 9-10pm. Could your ‘standard work hours’ be hampering performance and what options have you got for change?

Other ideas for enabling peak performance include:

  • Letting people wear headphones and zone out in the office.

  • Ensuring people have task variety so they can task switch during the day to manage their energy and attention.

  • Creating a culture of home-based working. Cutting out commutes and minimising the stressful morning rush can enhance people’s productivity.

  • Review how your breaks work. Some people may prefer multiple shorter breaks in a day rather than one long lunch break.

2. Adapt your leadership style

This can be pretty tough when you’re having to take on operational tasks to support the team, but you do occasionally need to jump in the leadership helicopter and take in the view from the air. Make sure you:

  • Talk more about what needs to be done and less about how it should be done. Give your team clear objectives and then let them meet them.

  • Do more asking and less telling. Empowered employees are productive employees, and taking a coaching approach enables empowerment. Ask them how to best solve problems or manage demands, they will feel involved and may come up with some winning solutions!

  • Be a role model. More than ever, your team is going to take their lead from you. If they see you running yourself ragged, they’ll think that’s expected of them too. Talk about your self-care strategies, work flexibly, speak openly about your challenges and how you’re managing them.

  • Recognise people more often. Genuine gratitude is so powerful, but saying thank you is often forgotten in the chaos. Make a conscious effort to acknowledge when someone gets something done, or stays late, logs in over a weekend or takes on a new task. Write cards, hand out gift vouchers, use your team chat platform, or just share a heartfelt thank you. Gratitude is one of the truly free things we have to share with others and the ROI is ridiculous, so sprinkle it around liberally!

  • Change your check ins. Make sure your catch ups are centred around help and enablement and not just a blow by blow of the work they did last week. I saw a great template that a leader emails to his team members the day before they catch up that asks: - What are your key achievements for the last week? - What information or help do you need from me? - How can I best support you to succeed next week?

3. Focus on health and wellbeing

It’s so so easy to run on adrenaline. The stress compels you to keep going far longer than you should. And for some reason this overworking is often glorified; people brag about being busy, boast about how late they stayed back or the amount of hours they did last week like some kind of corporate martyr. But this behaviour is dangerous for people’s physical and mental health, so it’s important to have some circuit breakers to remind people to take care of their own wellbeing:

  • Have healthy food options on hand. I know when I’m busy I forget to eat or eat whatever I can get my hands on (rarely a healthy choice). My husband’s company has a muesli bar bin, a big fruit bowl and toastie supplies (cheese, bread, tomato, ham etc) so that no matter how busy the team gets, they always have access to something nutritious to eat.

  • Set calendar reminders. Years ago the government agency I worked for installed a system that would lock you out of your computer if you’d been active on it for 2 hours. It was mildly annoying, but also useful! Setting little reminders for your team to ‘fill up your water bottle’ or ‘get off your chair’ or ‘look out a window’ are good nudges for staying wellbeing aware.

  • Role model good habits. If you make your wellbeing a priority, others will follow suit. Share a pic of you enjoying a walk at lunchtime, tell your team you’re logging off to pick the kids up/cook dinner/walk the dog, use your annual leave and take long weekends to recharge your batteries. Just be open about whatever you do to set a shining example!

  • Talk about the struggle. The reality is managing your health and wellbeing in tough times is hard. You need to not only check in with your team but also share a bit of your own experience. People need to know its ok to not be ok sometimes. Use open questions when checking in with others (what are you finding difficult right now? How can I support your wellbeing during this period?) and reciprocate in kind (I’m finding my biggest challenge is XYZ this week, what about you? I’ve pencilled time in my calendar to take a walk around the block at lunch this week, what initiative are you trying?).

There is no silver bullet here. There is no ‘one thing’ you can do to ease the pressure. Instead it’s about adopting a number of changes and hoping the multiplication factor helps to alleviate some of the stress on your team. But there are two really critical things to remember:

  1. Take a bespoke approach: not every solution will work for every team member. Offer them a leadership ‘buffet’ by talking about what support you can offer and asking each person what would work for them. Yes, it’s more complicated, but it’s also WAY more impactful.

  2. Be a coach, not a martyr: focus on being an enabler rather than a doer. Top coaches help their coachee run faster, they don’t run the race for them. Resist the temptation to step in and do. It might be faster or easier today, but it will become a burden tomorrow and beyond.

Keen for more support? I’m currently taking expressions of interest for my ‘leading through the tough stuff’ workshop series.

Over 3 interactive one-hour sessions we’ll explore your mindset, your capability and your self-care to ensure you’re leading as effectively as you possibly can right now.

Email me at tanya@zestbcc.com.au or PM me on LinkedIn or Instagram to register your interest.

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