In the fast-paced world we are living in, consumers value convenience and efficiency, and businesses are forced to attempt to keep up with those demands. In the workplace, this translates to prioritizing productivity and efficiency to meet the business’s expanding needs. Often this leads to an increased workload for employees which can result in an increased level of stress. For employers, workload management is an important part of the psychological health of their workers as well as maintaining a happy and productive workforce.
Workload management is present in a work environment where assigned tasks and responsibilities can be accomplished successfully within the time available. This is the risk factor that many working Canadians describe as being the biggest workplace stressor (i.e., having too much to do and not enough time to do it). It has been demonstrated that it is not just the amount of work that makes a difference, but also the extent to which workers have the resources (time, equipment, support) to do the work well.
Why is Workload Management Important?
Generally, individuals are happy to work hard, as there is something very rewarding and fulfilling in experiencing a “good day’s work”. There is a unique relationship between job demands, intellectual demands and job satisfaction which is what makes workload management so important. Job satisfaction is reduced when our job demands are too high, whereas it is improved when our intellectual demands, or decision-making latitude increase. When staff members also have high decision-making abilities, they will be able to thrive – even when demands are high. Positive coping behaviours can be learned and experienced when given the opportunity for high decision-making latitude.
What happens when employees can’t manage their workload?
When equipment is exposed to excess demands without rest, it will inevitably cease to function. This applies to people as well. When an employee is faced with increased demands, with little opportunity for control, this can result in fatigue in various forms – physical, psychological and emotional, and elevated stress and strain. This has a negative influence on performance. When someone is faced with emotional fatigue, this can result in a reduced sense of personal accomplishment, and a greater sense of incompetence. Excessive workload is one of the main reasons employees feel negatively about their jobs and their employers.
An organization with good workload management would be able to state that:
- the amount of work that workers are expected to do is reasonable for their positions;
- staff have the equipment and resources needed to do their jobs well;
- workers can talk to their supervisors about the amount of work they have to do;
- work is free from unnecessary interruptions and disruptions; and,
- workers have an appropriate level of control over prioritizing tasks and responsibilities when facing multiple demands.
Improving Workload Management in the Workplace
When it comes to workload management, there are a few things to keep in mind, some of which include:
- Cultivating a work culture that clearly values the quality of work done, not simply the quantity (e.g., hours worked);
- Assigning workload equitably. Consider different levels of responsibility associated with different positions;
- Allowing flexibility, as appropriate, on prioritization of tasks and deadlines;
- Ensuring that the necessary equipment and supports are available to help complete work in a timely manner (e.g., tools, technology, support staff);
- Generating, communicating and implementing timely strategies for dealing with peak periods of demand (e.g., temporary staff, job pools, job sharing); and
- Acknowledging and appreciating workers’ efforts during times of high work demand.
Communication surrounding workload is also incredibly important to the psychological health and safety of workers.
What are the best ways to communicate about workload?
Communicate regularly with staff about how they can best manage and adjust their workload, inform and prepare staff for anticipated periods of increased work (e.g., seasonal demands, peak shift hours), and actively involve staff in the development of strategies to better manage workload (e.g., reducing or eliminating redundant or unnecessary tasks).
Another important aspect of workload management is training and leadership support. Workplaces should provide education on topics that are relevant to managing workload including such topics as time management, or use of technology for example. This should also include education on mental health-related topics surrounding resiliency, stress management and burnout – including signs, symptoms and effects of stress, as well as evidence-based strategies for self-care.
Ways to help employees manage their workload
- Encourage workers to avoid multitasking. Many businesses have encouraged multitasking for years, but many studies have shown that splitting your attention between multiple tasks lowers efficiency and severely hurts the work quality.
- Prioritizing work. Taking the time to prioritize tasks can be an important tool in organization at work. Prioritizing tasks at the beginning of the day helps workers determine which tasks need to be completed first, and what can wait until the end of the day, or the next day. This will increase their overall efficiency.
- Flexibility and Adaptability. Manager flexibility and adaptability allows for workers to provide input in the work process, and allows them to complete their tasks in a way that makes the most sense for them and their skills.
- Electronic Planning and Organization. Online planning allows individuals within the organization to schedule meetings with one another, see each others’ calendars and provide them with important alerts.
- Effective Communication. Communication from leaders to workers is extremely important in ensuring the tasks and deadlines are understood clearly. This includes ensuring workers know they are able to come to leaders with questions or concerns about the projects they’re working on.
- Reasonable Expectations. Of course, all businesses want to be productive and efficient in order to meet consumer needs, but setting expectations so high that you set your employees up for failure leads to disappointment. This type of disappointment can have a significant negative impact on a worker’s mental wellness. This also means being aware of the other tasks and assignments individuals are working on so that expectations are reasonable to complete all tasks.
Workload Management and Policies and Procedures
Workload management priorities should be built into workplace policies and procedures. It’s important to create written job descriptions that include clear and reasonable expectations as well as conduct job assessments to determine workload demands, fairness in work distribution and areas for improvement.
When work demands are high, it’s important to ensure that systems are in place to cover staffing shortages (e.g., due to vacation, sick leave, unfilled positions) as well as provide non-salary perks during times of excessive work demands (e.g., meals, coverage of transportation costs). This also includes appropriate payment or accrued time off for approved overtime worked.
Final Thoughts on Workload Management – Ongoing Improvement
It’s common for individuals to feel like they need to be extremely productive and efficient at work which leads to multi-tasking, taking on too many projects, and working long hours. This not only increases workers’ stress levels but can ultimately lead to burnout. It’s important for organizations and people leaders to have realistic expectations and support their workers with workload management.
Workload Management is psychosocial factor 9 from the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety (PH&S) in the Workplace (CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013 – Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace). For more information, see also Guarding Minds at Work (Samra et al.).