Nov 201512

A Full Plate (Avoiding Getting Burned Out)

(Guest Blog by Nan Valentine)

All too often, my plate runneth over. I love food, and if I'm not careful, I'll eat too much. This, of course, makes me feel sick. You've been there, too, I suspect.

It's easy to overeat. Sometimes, it all looks delicious. There is a tendency to want it all, to overestimate our capacity.

Something similar is happening at our companies and organizations, only the problem doesn't involve food. After our executives go off on that retreat and develop the year's strategic plan, those who report to those executives are given a list of the year's strategic initiatives. This is a fancy term for projects we've added to employees' plates.

As I talk with my clients, I am told new items are regularly added to the plate, but rarely, do others leave it. This is the case even in the midst of layoffs, early retirement incentives, and other staff-reduction programs. The plates are already filled to the point of spilling over, and when people leave the company, the piles on the plates of those who are left get even bigger. Here's how a friend described the phenomenon at his firm.

"We have a large poster on the wall that lists our mission, values, and strategic initiatives. Over time, the mission and values stay the same, but the number of initiatives keeps growing. The sign can't get any bigger, so they just make the letters smaller. At this point, you need a magnifying glass to read all of those initiatives.”

This constant pressure to do more with less can lead to worker burnout. Burnout happens when requests for our time and energy exceed our capacity to comply.

Once a person reaches this stage, there is a rapid drop in productivity, not a gradual decline. Errors and accidents increase in number. People become irritable, they snap at their co-workers, and relationships start tanking.

Often, there are health consequences, as well. Absenteeism goes up, which just makes things worse. It is as if someone is force-feeding the workforce well beyond the point of saturation, and people are becoming sick.

Researchers for the National Institute of Safety and Health tell us 40% of workers say their jobs are very or extremely stressful, and 26% say they are often, or very often, burned out by their work. These are scary statistics.

Solving the problem requires strategic and insightful thinking, along with the will to put a reasonable amount of work on our plates and on the plates of those who depend on us. Several questions offer the path to creating a more manageable project "meal" plan:

First, which items on the plate will best support our organization? Which will yield the most significant results? These questions suggest we prioritize the work that is on the plate. The items on that plate are not all equal in the nutritional value they offer our company.

Next, what do we do with the items that are lowest on our priority list? Which can go away entirely? Which can be delayed? Which can be delegated elsewhere?

These are our 3D options: Delete, Delay, and Delegate.

Maybe a couple of those projects really won't yield hard results. They looked good on paper, but they really won't save us much money. Delete those.

Perhaps the next project is important, but it isn't as urgent as some of the more pressing items on the plate. Delay it.

Or, maybe when we look at all of the plates together we learn that some people don't have enough on their plates, while others have too much. Delegate projects on the overfull plates to those who have more room on their plates.

The exercise asks senior executives to take a hard look at the plates of those who serve their organizations: We might wish our staff could effectively handle that ever-increasing pile on their plates, but wishing won't make it so.

Each of us has a burnout tipping point.  Our capacity to keep taking on more work varies by person, but at some point, we all reach our limit. This is true for us at home, as well as at work. The same options apply when our personal plate is overfull: Delete, Delay, or Delegate.

Grandma might have told us to clean our plates, but she also cautioned us to take only the amount of food we could reasonably eat. We can ask people to clean their plates, but let's not ask them to gorge and become ill in the process.


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