Workload – Is this the next Emperor’s new clothes?

By Karen Amos

Exhausted.  Overwhelmed.  Inundated.  This is what I’m hearing and seeing around me, from clients, associates and on social media.

There’s too much work to do and too little time to do it in.  And yes, there are so many things going on right now, resulting in endless firefighting and over which we have very little control.  Vast swathes of staff teams going off sick with various illnesses, of which covid is only one, as an easy example.

I get the feeling of helplessness that goes with this, but can’t help but think there are also many things we CAN do something about, but often don’t.

As we come up to the festive season, this is never more needed.  What should for many be a time of holiday and celebration, becomes a source of stress, anxiety and overwhelm.

This is where our mindset comes in.

Working out what we can control or influence and not expending mental and emotional energy on the things we can’t, will ensure we expend our energy in the right way.  The good old Stoics and latterly Stephen Covey hit this on the nail.

That’s only part of the story though and I’m on a mission to call this out.  I’m going to be the little boy to the Emperor’s New Clothes of workload…

Here are the basic facts of the modern work-life as I see it:

1.  We will NEVER complete all of our workload

2.  We only have a finite amount of time and energy available to us

So let’s unpick this:

1.  We will never complete all of our workload.

We don’t want to think we’re failing, so we try to fool ourselves that one day… one day… we will have ticked all the tasks off on our to-do lists.  The fact is that there will always be more that could or should be done.   We can always do more, make things better, build on the last job… on it goes.

2.  We only have a finite amount of time and energy available to us.

Despite our best efforts there are only 24 hours in a day and you will never have the energy to consistently work huge proportions of this – not if you want to stay well that is!  Even if you had 36 hour days, you’d only have a certain amount of energy you could expend.

So this is why I liken workload to the Emperor’s New Clothes.  No-one is calling this out.  So I am.

If we accept these 2 facts as accurate, we’re left with 2 choices:

1.  Accept the inevitable frustration, despair, meltdown and ill health

2.  Make a mindshift in how we think about and approach our work

Doesn’t seem possible?  Then check out this example:

It’s the Monday, a week before your much needed holidays.  All you can think of is getting away and forgetting about work for a week or so.  So you have great intentions and have made a list of all the things you’re going to achieve from your to-do list before you go.

By the end of day one, you’ve made very little inroad.  In fact, you’ve actually added to your list.

By mid-week, you’re feeling the pressure.  You’re nowhere near getting those big chunky pieces of work out of the way and it really doesn’t look like you’ve time to do them before Friday.

By Thursday, you’re starting to cross off some things that ‘can wait’.

By Friday, you’re crossing off most things, deciding they’re probably not that vital and guess what?  For many of them, you’ll never even add them back onto your list when you return!

Which just goes to prove that much of the issue isn’t about WHAT we’ve got to do, it’s WHAT OUR ATTITUDE IS to what we’ve got to do.

Of course, there are many tools and techniques we can effectively use to manage our time and workload.  I teach many of these in my training programmes, but the fact is, these alone will not solve your workload issues.

For example, I’d always advocate that people use lists to help lighten your cognitive load amongst other things.  The problem is that if we don’t approach what we put on our lists with the right mindset, we’ll find ourselves writing them on kitchen rolls they’ll be that long.

Let’s face it, none of us are going to be on our death bed saying, ‘At least I got to the end of my to-do list!’

The solution to this I believe, lies in having better quality conversations – with ourselves, our managers and our teams.  A conversation that says, ‘OK, this work has just landed and I’m already at or over capacity with my workload.’

  • What do I need to do myself?
  • What do I need to be saying to others?

Here are some coaching questions to get you started:

  • If I accept it’s impossible to get to the bottom of my to-do list – what needs to happen to ensure I can still do a good job and stay well?
  • What if my wellbeing was as important as getting my jobs done?
  • How can I work more collaboratively with others in a way that helps everyone?
  • How can I work more efficiently?
  • What happens when I prioritise my work better?
  • What should my response be if someone comes to me with more work?

One of the things we can say could be to our managers, at what ever level.  Easier said than done in some cases I admit, but what if we were to say, ‘I’m already at capacity.  Can you help me work out what I can do and when?’

I’m not saying this is always the case, but I confess that on occasions in the past, I have been that manager.  The one who was so overwhelmed that when another tranche of work came in, I did a ‘dump and run’ on my team.

The result?  An over-worked and disgruntled team and myself, feeling like I’d sold my values down the river.

The thing is that the solution doesn’t necessarily mean appointing more staff – although how can we ever present a valid business case if we don’t acknowledge what’s there?  Often though, more staff aren’t needed, just the right support, training and advice and some better communication.

In order to truly change things for the better we need to own up.  To shout out if our workload isn’t possible, as there will never be a positive change if we don’t.

If you would like to find out more about how you and your teams can improve their time management and productivity, whilst minimising stress and overwhelm, check out our new Positive and Productive online programme.  

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Karen Amos is an executive coach and founder of BrightBird Coaching & Training. She supports business owners and managers who are feeling the pressure, to get the best out of themselves and their teams. She brings a practical, down-to-earth approach to improving working lives through better leadership, communication and working relationships.