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The overworked workplace

PricewaterhouseCoopers Director Carlton Yearwood says more people are wearing feelings of being overworked like a red badge. Call it technology's double-edged sword.

It's Monday morning. In the elevator you overhear a conversation between two co-workers:

Co-worker 1: "How was your weekend?"

Co-worker 2: "I didn't have one. I had to work."

Co-worker 1: "Me too, and I missed my daughter's soccer game."

Sound familiar? More and more people are wearing feelings of being overworked like a red badge. Workers one-up each other with stories about their busy lives. Sadly, our use of technology, instead of delivering on its promise to make life easier and less complicated, often adds to our feelings of being overworked.

This is but one of the many disturbing findings in a major new study, "Feeling Overworked: When Work Becomes Too Much," from the Families & Work Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Through telephone interviews with 1,003 working adults, the study yielded a number of alarming results, including:

• One-third of U.S. employees often or very often feel overwhelmed by how much they have to do at work.

• Seventy percent report that they often dream about getting a new job.

• Overworked employees are more likely to feel angry at work.

• Technology use adds to feelings of being overworked.

Let's focus on the impact of technology. It certainly has made us more efficient at work, giving us more ways to manage and save time. It's enhanced our creativity beyond what many thought possible. But therein lies a double-edged sword. As much as technology has enabled us to do, it also adds to the overwork dilemma in which many U.S. workers, particularly professionals, are feeling trapped.

Consider these additional study findings:

• Four in 10 employees (41 percent) often or very often use technology (cellular/mobile phones, beepers, pagers, computers, e-mail, fax) for their jobs during nonwork hours, and those who use technology more frequently feel more overworked.

• About one-fifth (22 percent) of employees say they often or very often have to be accessible to their employers during nonwork hours, while 30 percent say they never have to be accessible. Employees who are more accessible (by whatever means) to their employers during nonwork hours feel more overworked; 41 percent of those who say they have to be accessible to their employers often or very often during nonwork time report high levels of feeling overworked vs. 31 percent of those who rarely or never have to be accessible.

• More than half of those who feel they are unnecessarily accessible experience high levels of feeling overworked vs. 32 percent of those who do not feel unnecessarily accessible.

So how do we take this study and use it to improve the workplace and reduce feelings of being overworked? Several thoughts come to mind.

If efficiency results in being able to get more done with fewer resources, then it's a plus for business; to the extent that employees are able to do that within what the study called the "preferred amount of work hours," then you have a win-win situation.

Leaders and staff need to understand what optimal performance actually means. This makes it necessary for an open exchange between the person doing the work and the employer. Workers need to understand the skills that they need to perform optimally; a worker can feel overworked because he or she lacks important skills.

Workers need to reach peak performance using all of the right tools. Employers need to better understand worker capabilities and what drives optimal performance. They also need to solicit feedback around everything that drives optimal performance, including:

• Technology
• The right tools for the job
• The environment in which tools are used
• Leadership

According to my boss, Toni Riccardi, chief diversity officer for PricewaterhouseCoopers: "Employers need to get a much better handle on providing the tools and business skills, as well as the leadership that aligns workers around a company's vision. Employees want to come to work eager and ready to perform. Management needs to provide constant feedback and the right environment to nurture that enthusiasm. To the extent that business leaders fail to do this, it drives down employee disposition. Dissatisfied employees tend to vote with their feet. Customer satisfaction also drops, and negative comments flow both inside and outside the company. To the extent that a leader provides the right work environment, an employee's disposition will be more positive, and he or she will be more productive."

The bottom line? Employers need to understand this dynamic if they are serious about minimizing feelings of overwork among employees. The bad news is there are no quick fixes and it's not easy to turn a negative situation around overnight.

The good news? We're in a marathon, not a sprint. Employers who seriously want to reduce feelings of overwork while increasing morale and production just need to roll up their sleeves, commit themselves to improving their work environment, and follow through.