The Mounting Costs of an Overworked Culture

By Desda Moss Sep 23, 2015
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Jesse_Sostrin.jpgBy Jesse Sostrin

Today’s managers face an intractable situation in which there is not enough time, energy, resources or focus to meet the increasing demands they face. This impossible situation, which I explore in my new book, The Manager’s Dilemma (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), has no easy answers.
The scale of the epidemic is clear in these statistics:
• 80 percent of managers say that the demands they face are increasing.
• 66 percent say “workload” is the top cause of their stress, outranking “people issues” and “job security.”
• Nearly half of managers say they struggle with a lack of focus and clear direction.
• 61 percent of managers say they are working below their optimal level of energy.
• 51 percent say increased workload has a direct, negative effect on their well-being.
But these numbers only tell part of the story. When the perpetual gap between increasing demands and shrinking resources widens past the point of no return, the manager’s dilemma takes hold.
In an effort to catch up and stay afloat, managers inadvertently begin to work in counterproductive ways that make their solutions powerless; weaken their advantages; and deplete scarce supplies of time, energy, resources and focus.
These self-defeating habits are the hidden costs of doing more with less. The harder managers struggle to meet impossible demands, the more they lose the very performance edge that they need to break the cycle. Shortcuts become dead ends, and the unending struggle to do more with less leaves managers exhausted and unable to reach their full potential.
The moment the inverse equation of increasing demands and shrinking resources kicks in, managers get caught in firefighting mode as they face a series of unwanted trade-offs: "Which goal rises above other priorities? Which 'fire of the day' gets extinguished while others are selectively ignored simply because there are too few resources to address them? Which project receives funding while other high-potential opportunities languish?"
These are the kinds of critical assessments, judgment calls and decisions that managers face daily. Each move in this zero-sum game generates a give-or-take with vital consequences for the team and organization. More importantly, it leaves managers caught in an exhausting cycle of perpetually unfinished business.
Despite the headlines, this phenomenon is not just a product of a few isolated, high-demand workplace cultures. It is pervasive. And it is here to stay. When business is good, the dilemma spikes because the growth curve pushes everyone’s capacity to the edge. When business is bad, the dilemma spikes because belt-tightening taxes everyone’s abilities to the brink for the opposite reasons.
If you manage people, priorities or projects, you are susceptible to the dilemma. And if you lead teams and organizations, you are the steward of a culture that either makes it more or less likely that such pressures will affect others. Take a free self-assessment to spot triggers that could put you in the danger zone.

Jesse Sostrin, SPHR, is the author of The Manager’s Dilemma. He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success. Follow him @jessesostrin on Twitter.

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