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How to manage workload effectively

Workers are logging more hours and shouldering heavier workloads than ever before. In both work schedule and work volume, there’s been a steady moving of the goalposts for years.

Workers are logging more hours and shouldering heavier workloads than ever before. In both work schedule and work volume, there’s been a steady moving of the goalposts for years. In many jobs, the expectation of what one person can reliably accomplish or manage in their role has become unreasonable. Americans now spend up to 19 percent more time on the job than their European counterparts.

The average office worker receives 120 emails every day. Even a global pandemic didn’t slow the swelling of our at-work obligations. An analysis of the emails and meetings of 3.1 million people in sixteen global cities found that the average workday increased by forty-eight minutes during the pandemic. Lest you think this issue is more pervasive across generational lines, workaholics are now common among nineteen-to-thirty-five-year-old workers, perhaps more so than among older members of Generation X and the baby boomers.

What’s remarkable about the expansion of work is that we’ve had clear evidence for a while that long hours and stress reduce both productivity and quality. Among industrial workers, overtime raises the rate of mistakes and safety mishaps. For knowledge workers, tiredness and limited sleep impair thinking. As we’ve spent decades giving employees more work, we’ve slowly made them less effective. We’re also obliterating their health. One research team that looked at long work hours across 194 countries found a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, leading to about 745,000 attributable deaths. Their study called long work hours the largest of any occupational risk factor calculated to date. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overwork is linked to weight gain, alcohol and tobacco use, and higher rates of injury, illness, and death.

Exhausted workers have hit their breaking point. They’re refusing to sacrifice health and happiness outside of work for success on the job. Parents are resolving to no longer be the last parent picking up their child from school. Managers are swearing off having to constantly do catch-up work on evenings and weekends. The Great Upgrade is about many things, but mostly it’s about people wanting their lives to come first. Your organization will have an easier time keeping workers both employed and engaged if you can offer them a job that requires them to work less and do less work—in other words, both fewer hours and demands. 

As overwork has become a chronic issue, entire countries have started piloting and testing shorter workweeks. Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland ran a series of trials, across industries, to study the impact of switching to a four-day workweek. The results have been called “transformative” and “groundbreaking evidence for the efficacy of working time reduction.” Across the trials, productivity remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces. Employees reported lower levels of stress and burnout, and increases in their overall health and work-life balance. The positive shifts in health and mindset weren’t just work affiliated. Workers also reported less stress at home and wider social well-being. They described having more time to spend with their families, do hobbies, run errands, exercise, and tend to household chores. In the years following this landmark pilot, trade unions and employers in Iceland worked together to renegotiate working patterns at companies and public service organizations. Now, 86 percent of Iceland’s workforce have either moved to a shorter workweek for the same pay or will gain the right to do so.

Since Iceland’s project, many more countries have started exploring reductions in labor time across their workforce. The Spanish government agreed to a thirty-two-hour workweek over three years for its employees without cutting workers’ pay. The prime minister of Finland is on record in favor of shortening the amount of time people work, suggesting companies adopt a flexible six-hour day and a four-day workweek. Scotland, Japan, and Belgium have all announced plans to explore a reduced workweek. In Germany—which already has one of the shortest work weeks in Europe at an average of 34.5 hours a week—trade unions are calling for further reductions to enhance retention of personnel. And in Denmark, which consistently ranks among the top three happiest countries on earth according to the World Happiness Report, people rarely put in more than thirty-seven hours a week, often leaving the office by 4 or 5 p.m.

Happiness expert Dan Buettner has reviewed research on more than twenty million people worldwide and has led extensive research in the world’s happiest countries. He says, “When it comes to your work, try to work part-time, thirty to thirty-five hours a week.” He also finds that six weeks of vacation per year is the optimal amount for happiness. If that isn’t possible, he says, employees should at least get to use all of their allotted vacation time and negotiate for more. If the idea of offering your employees thirty-hour workweeks and six weeks of vacation seems out of reach, then operate on the general rule that less is more. A more reachable goal could be just to get slightly below forty hours per week. Research shows that even shaving an hour or two off the standard forty hour workweek can have huge benefits, both at work and at home. Less than 10 percent of workers are able to achieve that schedule.

Remember, people aren’t robots. We are not built to always run on our max setting until our batteries are completely drained. We have varying degrees of focus. We have emotional peaks and valleys. We need breaks from the most mentally and physically demanding types of work—otherwise we’re on a collision course with burnout. In nearly every kind of job, people need time to think, be creative, attend to quality, and do follow-up. They need time to ask questions, attend training, or develop relationships with collaborators. Once your organization gets compensation and workload right, you’re just one dimension away from creating an employee’s Ideal Job.

Excerpted from Joe Mull’s upcoming book “Employalty: How to Ignite Commitment and Keep Top Talent in the New Age of Work”

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