Well-being at Work Series Factor #3: Workload Management

I started this series to share 13 factors that contribute to psychological safety and mental health in the workplace. Because as leaders and employees, we need to know so we don’t inadvertently bring harm to ourselves or our teams.

Today, let’s talk about #3, workload management.

We all want to do our work successfully within our allocated time. One of the biggest stressors in the workplace is too much work and not enough time to do it. But it’s also about whether an employee has sufficient skills and support for that workload.

Feeling some discomfort as part of the growth process is normal. Most of us enjoy meeting stretch goals and building our skills. Stress, in this case, can be called “eustress” because it’s beneficial in the end. Most leaders and managers want to create a positive growth environment, and part of that is changing the workload so it stimulates employees’ sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

So far, so good.

But who feels a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when:

  • We’re given work that doesn’t align with our skills. One example is I’ve seen work dumped on people who are left behind after a restructuring – they’re asked to do their work and part of someone else’s who the company said was redundant. And sometimes, without proper training or preparation.
  • We’re constantly given work by leaders who don’t plan ahead and are unnecessarily in emergency/firefighting mode. One example is the Friday afternoon text that you have to get a bunch of things done before the end of the day, and it’s urgent for Monday morning. Ughh.
  • We’re in so many meetings during the day we can’t do productive, fulfilling work. It’s frustrating to go to work all day and never make progress on the tasks you want to spend your time on – the “real” work piles up, as does the stress of feeling behind on deliverables.
  • We’re told to finish a project by a certain date, yet everyone knows it’s near impossible. I once worked with an amazing leader who labeled this type of mission the “death march.” He called it as it was, and even though all the risks were logged (and we used that phrase), senior leadership still wanted to proceed. It gets even more stressful when this cuts into key vacation periods. Sacrificing personal time when you know you’ll likely fail brings down the morale of the team.

These are just a few examples, and there are many more like the quarter-end frenzy that people involved with financial reporting deal with over and over again.

So the question becomes, what is acceptable for the crazy, hectic workplace, and what isn’t because it’s unsafe for physical and mental health?

Where is the line?

What happens when the stress from being able to manage our workload (whether the issue is time, skills, or support) turns into distress and becomes unsafe?

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety says:

“Any system subject to excess load without reprieve will break. This is as true for people as it is for equipment. Increased demands, without opportunities for control, result in physical, psychological and emotional fatigue, and increase stress and strain. Emotionally fatigued individuals also have a diminished sense of personal accomplishment and an increased sense of inadequacy. Excessive workload is one of the main reasons employees are negative about their jobs and their employers.”

Why it is important?

Most employees willingly work hard and feel a good day’s work is fulfilling and rewarding. Workload management is important because there is a unique relationship between job demands, intellectual demands and job satisfaction. Job demands reduce job satisfaction, while intellectual demands or decision-making latitude, increase job satisfaction. Even when there are high demands, if employees also have high decision-making ability, they will be able to thrive. Having high decision-making latitude also allows for positive coping behaviours to be learned and experienced.”

A key point here is job demands vs. intellectual demands. Being able to thrive at work is correlated to having decision-making ability. You should be able to control your workload to some degree and negotiate if you need more skills, time, and support to be successful in your responsibilities.

If things are not improving, or you feel your well-being is at risk, pushing back becomes even more important.

➡ A constructive discussion with whoever controls your workload is a great option – if that is available. Not all managers are supportive, so maybe a mentor or other ally in the workplace can help.

➡ Framing this as a valid psychological safety need in the workplace may also help. Reference The Standard as it will bring facts and research to the discussion.

📢 Everyone should receive psychological safety awareness training, such as the research and findings documented in the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety.

⭐ Let’s think about how we can find better ways to work as compassionate leaders when assigning workload. Look for ways to increase intellectual demands, not just job demands. Look for opportunities for inclusive decision-making. Discuss time, support, and skills when assigning workload or accepting workload.

⭐ I recently heard Gabor Maté, author of The Myth of Normal, say that we have needs as adults – for connection, purpose, and community. The work we do should support those needs — not adversely affect them.

💗 If you feel a psychological safety threshold is being crossed because of workload, please consider appropriate actions to support well-being — both for the team members we care about and for ourselves (our loved ones want us to be healthy, too.)

Experiencing a workload that is harmful to well-being or witnessing someone else being adversely impacted in the workplace can be difficult things to deal with. Consider Project Dharma, which I detail in my book, Breakthrough: A Memoir of Toxic Work, Mindfulness and Inner Peace, as a process you can leverage to find well-being, peace, and harmony in the workplace. If you’d like to chat more, please contact me.