Managing Excessive Workloads


American author, historian, actor, and broadcaster Louis “Studs” Terkel once said “work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying”.

And a former colleague once said “there will always be more work and good ideas than there is time, people and resources to do them – you just have to do the best you can in the circumstances”.

These two comments have stuck with me for more than 20 years, and nothing I have seen or heard has caused me to change my view that this was one of the most helpful pieces of information that any manager has ever given me.

What is perhaps most surprising is that there are still people around who believe you can or must do everything and continue to try to do so – but this is a road to disaster!

There are a number of ways of managing excessive workloads discussed below.

Engage more staff

This proposal is theoretically sensible but when was the last time your organisation was able to allocate more staff?

There is always a possibility that more staff will be available and the question should be asked, but any manager who does not explore other workload management options will be seen as one-dimensional.

Set priorities

Setting priorities sounds like an easy and effective ways of managing excessive workloads but I have seldom seen it done effectively.  But setting priorities actually means what are we going to stop doing?  And often implementing the results of a priority setting exercise is unacceptable to stakeholders.

One organisation I worked with was asked to cut the program by setting priorities and, although it appeared that the program was cut, most of the activities that were cut were actually incorporated into (or hidden in?) other programs.  This set the organisation up to fail because cuts to program meant cuts to budget.  The workload had not been reduced, it had just been redistributed, rebranded and concealed!

Work harder

Working harder is a euphemism for working longer hours – either by staying late or by sitting at our desks for long periods of time without a break.

Each individual has to identify the hours that they are prepared to work and also the activities outside of work that they will not miss and develop a comfortable work life balance that way.

I once sat in a Meeting where a member of staff bitterly complained that he couldn’t work any harder – he was arriving at work in the dark, he was leaving work in the dark, and he didn’t get the opportunity to spend time with his young children.

When asked what he wanted, he said a pay rise!  I was encouraged that the responding Senior Executive asked him how a pay rise would help.

Organisations and Senior Executives seldom dictate that all work must be done and that you cannot leave until all of your work is finished.  Individuals need to be mature and sensible enough to know where to draw their own line.

In some organisations, there appears to be competition between members of staff as to who can spend the longest time at work.  This is a dangerous and unproductive practice – avoid getting involved!

What really matters is that you do your work to the best of your ability, that when the pressure is on you can be relied upon to get the job done, but that when the pressure is lifted you take the time to refresh yourself.

Work smarter

Although this is an overused cliché, and most of the obvious ways of working smarter have already been implemented, working smarter is what we have to do.

Working smarter may mean automating manual processes, but there are probably not many manual processes left.  And if there is, it probably will cost an arm and a leg to do so.

Working smarter may mean spending less time on the task but that will generally mean a reduction in the absolute quality of the piece of work.  And this raises a really important point.

Sometimes things don’t have to be perfect.  Sometimes any result is better than no result.  Sometimes getting a good result quickly is better than getting a perfect result less quickly.  The trick is to know what needs to be perfect, and what needs to be quick.

This can be called quality management at its most basic – just remember that McDonalds is quality accredited – its food may not be perfect but it is quick and it meets customer expectations.

Helpful Hints
  • Try to maintain a complete list of all tasks that you plan to undertake or would like to undertake – you never know when a spare moment or a spare resource may arise that you can use to your advantage
  • Make sure that you clearly understand what your stakeholder wants in relation to time and quality
  • Learn to say “yes, but…” – your stakeholders need to be absolutely clear about the impacts of you taking on more work
  • Sometimes you need to push back – present workload dilemmas in terms of “I can do this or this but not both” – but don’t do that too often or too aggressively
  • Implement other sensible management practices – if you can delegate, do so; if you can piggyback on other people’s work or previous work, do so but do so openly
  • Set a mental alarm for when to leave work – there will always be times when you need to work late but make that the exception rather than the rule – it doesn’t matter how late you stay, there will always be more work to do
  • Spend more time planning and scheduling your private life – it may be helpful to plan some late nights at work to get things finished, but it may also be helpful to plan some early nights at home
  • Make sure you know the difference between actual pressure and perceived pressure – any organisation where people are constantly under pressure to work long hours due to unrealistic workloads is dysfunctional and will implode sooner or later