What do you do when an employee isn’t performing like they used to?
All sorts of causes could be to blame: distractions in an employee’s personal life, fatigue due to taking on additional employment or having a new baby at home, or even broader mental or physical health issues could play a role.
But so could the workload you’ve assigned.
Employee overload is a growing concern among businesses, especially for managers that care about their employees’ overall well-being — not just their job performance.
This quick post will show you how to avoid employee overload and what to do if you’re experiencing it yourself.
What is employee overload?
Employee overload is when employees at an organization have more work assigned than can be accomplished during their workday. It can happen to isolated individuals, specific teams or departments, or entire organizations, and it can be fleeting, temporary, or endemic at any of those levels.
When employers overloadfull-time or even part-time workers, businesses tend to suffer in the long run. An early burst in productivity soon gives way to stress, declining performance, burnout, and even physical and mental health concerns. Before long, staffing and retention can begin to suffer
6 red flags of employee overload
Employee overload doesn’t look the same in every employee. If you’re concerned that some of your employees may be dealing with overload, look for these six red flags.
1) Decreased levels of productivity & task completion
Overloaded employees will quickly become overwhelmed juggling too many tasks, diminishing productivity and task completion. Productivity drops because of the time lost switching between tasks, or constantly checking what’s the most actively on fire at the moment.
And task completion also suffers: employees switch to the on-fire task before finishing their current one, and who knows when (or if) they’ll find time (or remember) to switch back to the unfinished task.
If an employee who previously turned in good work on time gradually starts slowing down and failing to complete tasks, overload could be a culprit.
2) Decreased work quality
With a growing backlog of tasks to complete, an overloaded employee may feel significant time pressure. When people constantly feel under the gun, they tend to cut corners, skip final checks, and move just a little faster than they should.
The result is a lower work quality, which can also be a red flag pointing to overload.
3) Increased tardiness
One less obvious red flag that a team member is overloaded or in the early stages of burnout is showing up late. Spending day after day feeling overwhelmed doesn’t do anyone’s mental health any favors, and tardiness and inability to focus are classic symptoms of depression, a disabilitythat affects roughly 280 million people worldwide.
Also, when your people are consistently working late (or coming back to their computers in the evening), they’re physically more tired the next day. Compound this over weeks or months, and it’s easy to see how late arrivals can connect to overload.
And what about employees who just don’t show up at all? Especially given the incredibly tight labor market, it’s easier than ever for creative professionals to move on. Load your people up too heavily, and they might ditch you for greener pastures.
4) Decreased energy and motivation toward work
If you notice once happy and motivated employees starting to look lethargic and disengaged, you’ll certainly want to investigate. Numerous causes could contribute, including workplace culture, mental health, and overload or overwork.
5) Increased distractedness
The more overworked an employee feels, the worse things get in terms of energy levels. Before long, focusing on anything becomes difficult, which can manifest as a constant stream of distractions, inattention during meetings, etc.
6) Decline in physical and/or mental health
Nearly everything we’ve described as red flags for overwork could also be symptoms of mental health concerns, and that’s not a coincidence. CAMH, a global leader in mental health research, makes the connection between “overwhelming and prolonged” elevated stress levels and increased risk of mental health and medical problems.
To put it bluntly, overwork and overload can make your employees sicker and less mentally fit.
Tips for managers: How to avoid overloading your team members
Given the red flags and symptoms we’ve just described, most managers seek to avoid overloading their team members. But how can managers do this consistently in a world where they're being asked to do more with less, and business needs constantly outstrip capacity?
These five tips are a great place to start assessing and balancing workload, reducing overload, overwhelm, and overwork for the employees who report to you.
Create a time budget
A time budget sets aside blocks of time for the highest priority work. And just like a (functioning) home financial budget, when the time budget runs out of time, that’s it! No more work gets allocated.
A time budget only works if you have certain capabilities in place, though. You still have to have a way to forecast how long various tasks will take. You also need a way to track and quickly view tasks that have been assigned to your resources.
But once you get those capabilities in place, budgeting your team members’ time (and your own) is a great way to take control of schedules, rather than letting them control you.
Or, if you prefer real-world results, see how one digital marketing agency used Teamwork Projects to increase revenue while reducing meeting overload.
Set clear goals and milestones
In most businesses, there will be inevitable, unavoidable short bursts of intensity from time to time. This is especially common in design and other creative fields, where big pushes for deadlines are frequent. Great managers encourage their team members to push themselves through a particularly tough two-week sprint or something similar.
The trouble comes when this kind of intensity seems to last forever, with no clear goal or milestone to work toward. Prevent overload from becoming the norm by setting up clear goals and milestones — and planning for periods of lower intensity once teams reach them.
Delegate tasks to the appropriate team members
On some teams, overload isn’t immediately obvious. Certain members of the team might even have noticeable downtime. If some team members are relatively bored while others are badly overloaded, the problem is workload balancing — or a failure to delegate properly.
Sometimes rethinking work assignments can help, too. You may encounter an overloaded employee who is simply not very good at the primary assigned task, but would succeed or even thrive with work of a different nature.
The world of productivity tools and project management software has evolved to a staggering degree in the past decade or two. Companies using the latest technology, software, and platforms can collaborate better, produce more, and stay better organized.
Teamwork is a full suite of project management tools, including project planning and task management tools. If you’re still managing projects in spreadsheets or manually tracking who’s doing what, it’s time to step into the future. Teamwork empowers managers and project leaders with better task and project visibility so they can solve overload issues before they turn into burnout and retention issues.
To show you the power of using better tech tools, let’s look at one specific subtype of employee overload: email overload. It’s increasingly common as businesses rely on email for just about everything — client communication, internal collaboration, lead nurturing, help desk support, etc.
Teamwork Desk can help free businesses from helpdesk-related inbox overload, simplifying and streamlining your helpdesk operations.
Limit meetings and reduce collaboration
Meeting overload or meeting fatigue is a real concern for many office workers, and we’ve all heard the quips about the meeting that should have been an email.
If your employees are overloaded, consider just how much of their workweek is taken up by mandatory meetings. Are those meetings worth the cost (both in the combined salaries of everyone in the room and the combined loss of work hours)?
Collaboration, too, is a double-edged sword. It’s necessary and often beneficial, but actively collaborating people are not simultaneously working on their individual tasks.
Be reasonable with meetings and collaboration time periods so your employees can stay focused without getting overloaded.
Helpful steps to take if you’re feeling overloaded
So far, we’ve been talking mostly to managers and leaders about how to help their people. But what if you are feeling overloaded (whether you’re a manager, an entry-level employee, or anything in between)? Don’t wait for your manager to take action — try taking these steps to address what you can yourself.
Schedule a 1:1 meeting with your manager
Start with a 1:1 meeting with your manager. Your overload may be deeply obvious to you, but don’t assume your manager knows. Start by sharing your feelings, backed up with any data you have that shows the overload.
Managers who are blind to overload are powerless to fix it. You can’t make your manager fix it, but you can remove the blinders.
Set boundaries to prioritize work-life balance
Every job is different, but nearly every job can and should have boundaries. If email is following you home or creeping into the personal lives of you and your coworkers, ask yourself why. What would be the consequences of waiting until morning to respond? Do you really need your work email on your phone?
Remember, you signed up for a full-time position, not a prison sentence. Work-life balance is important for your mental health and relationships, but sometimes protecting that balance takes work.
Once you establish these boundaries (within the context of your line of work and human resources policies), stick to them and find a way to tactfully inform your manager, if necessary.
Avoid distractions and multitasking
It’s counterintuitive, but multitasking doesn’t work, full stop. So if you’re tempted to switch from task to task, resist that temptation.
Whatever you can do to stay focused on one thing at a time will help reduce the panic and anxiety sides of overload. Set blocks of time to work on tasks, and minimize distractions during that time. Your organization may have policies about staying on Slack or Teams, but do you really need up-to-the-second email notifications?
Avoid employee overload with Teamwork’s task management
Employee overload is a complex problem, but it doesn’t have to be a way of life at your business or within your department. Use the strategies we’ve outlined here to chip away at overload and overwork.
Also, make sure you’re using the right combination of modern tech tools so that you always have the best information and visibility into the state of projects and personnel workloads. Teamwork’s task management tools are a great way to transform unbalanced, overloaded teams into synchronized, synergistic ones.