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Is Your Unachievable Workload Burning You Out?

BY Michelle McQuaid

Let’s face it, finding the balance between the demands of our work and the resources available to us can be challenging. Inundated with tasks, deadlines, and responsibilities, it’s easy to quickly feel overwhelmed unless we take the time to clarify our priorities and seek support.

New international psychosocial standards note that unachievable job demands can occur when we experience:

  • An excessive amount of work to be completed.
  • A sustained level of effort that chronically exceeds our skills.
  • An intense level of physical, mental, or emotional effort required.
  • Low job demands, where we’re given menial tasks or not enough to do.

Our research at The Leaders Lab has found that this can affect people’s performance and compromise their levels of psychosocial (emotional and social) safety and wellbeing. And, if unaddressed can lead to burnout.

So, what can we do practically to minimize this risk in our workplaces?

When it comes to balancing our job demands, we can only go so far alone. Minimizing this risk requires leaders and team members to learn and grow together.

The good news is researcher Dr. Wayne Baker (2019) has found that asking for help makes us more effective at our jobs. Far from a sign of weakness or deficiency, it helps to better manage our stress, improve our learning, and open up opportunities.

Asking for help to balance our job demands is often the one simple act that stands between us and our success and wellbeing. The best part? Studies suggest we often underestimate others’ willingness and ability to help, which suggests our odds of receiving support are probably better than we think.

We recommend workplaces and leaders:

  • Design jobs with resources in mind – Be mindful of where team members might have high job demands and design the workload to accommodate and adjust how much they are expected to achieve in a day. When high job demands are unavoidable, build in support.
  • Treat people as individuals –If two people are doing the same job, but one person is okay with the job demands while the other is struggling, treat them as individuals, and manage the risk for whoever is struggling. Start by having a conversation and ask them: Are the job demands too much? Or not enough? Work together so they feel comfortable and valued in their role, regardless of their working style.
  • Provide the right resources – By having the right resources ready you can provide team members with the support they need at times of high workload. For example, if you need people to do mentally demanding work, make sure they have somewhere quiet they can do it.
  • Track job demands and agree priorities – Use a job demand journal to help team members track their weekly work capacity, the tasks they need to complete, the intensity of tasks, and any additional support they need. Review the journal together to ensure priorities and tasks have been clearly understood and reassign, delay, or remove any tasks that are unrealistic for the week.

How are you navigating unachievable job demands in your workplace to support people’s mental health and wellbeing?

For a podcast with practical examples to help, click here.

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