How many hats is too many? The burden of the overloaded workforce

27 November 2022

Even though the immediate threat of the pandemic is beginning to recede, organisations are still feeling the effects. The latest research from Hays has found that 91% of employers are still experiencing a skills shortage in 2022. More and more organisations are struggling to find people to fulfil roles, but few are willing to adjust targets or revenue goals.

You might be wondering who’s going to do all that work. If you’re an employee, the answer is probably you.

Many of us have been there. You start a job with a neat set of tasks and responsibilities, and the feeling of “I’ve got this!”. Then someone resigns and their role is split up among the team “temporarily”, just until a replacement is found.

And with the skills shortage we’re facing, that replacement could be a long time coming (if ever).

While the business has successfully reallocated its workload, you’re left wondering how you ended up leading a team of 20 AND cleaning out the kitchen fridge. And, you’re likely feeling the effects of an overloaded job.

Burnout has become a bit of a pandemic buzzword, but it’s a reality among an overloaded workforce.

Australian and New Zealand employees rank among the most stressed workers in the world, with 47% of those surveyed in Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report saying they felt stressed most of the day.

Unrealistic workloads, lack of role clarity and unmanageable deadlines are causing people to experience high levels of stress, but it’s not just employees who are affected.


How work overload affects employee engagement

It’s not only our people who suffer when they’re forced to wear too many hats. The knock-on effect of overloaded employees can impact the business as well.

  • Poor customer service: with more tasks and less time to do them, overloaded employees are likely to make mistakes, and this can impact the level of service they provide to your customers.
  • Unproductive and de-motivated employees: We know that mastery is one of thebiggest motivators in the workplace, so if your people don’t feel competent or confident doing parts of their role (because you’ve lumped them with tasks outside of their wheelhouse), their engagement and productivity decreases.
  • Higher turnover: overworked employees are likely to look elsewhere for a more realistic or manageable role. In a recent survey, 40% of people who changed jobs in 2021 listed burnout as the reason for leaving. So while you may think you’re saving money by bundling roles together, it may be a false economy – especially considering the cost of recruiting has more than doubled in the last 12 months
  • Damage to brand reputation: dissatisfied employees may be some of the most vocal around. If they’ve just escaped a role where felt they were overworked, they’ll likely tell their friends about it – this may negatively impact your Employee Value Proposition (EVP) and make it harder for you to recruit in an already tough market.

And when people in these overloaded roles leave, you’re left with an unrealistic position to fill. You may have seen more than a few job ads recently asking for hybrid or “unicorn” positions.


6 signs your employees are overloaded

There will be some people who feel comfortable speaking to their manager about a full-to-the-brim workload. But many will suffer in silence. Spotting the early signs of employee overload is vital to retain your top talent.

Signs to look out for:
  • Taking more leave: if your people don’t feel as if they can catch a break at work, they may take annual leave days to relieve the pressure.
  • Arriving later than usual: you might also notice normally punctual people arriving late – if this is a repeated pattern it could be a sign that motivation is waning, which could be due to overloaded workloads.
  • More sick days: burnout and work overload can have serious impacts on mental and physical health, so you may notice your people taking more sick days than normal.
  • More mistakes: excessive workload might cause people to rush or cut corners, which can result in more mistakes than usual.
  • Missing deadlines: if you notice your employees are missing deadlines when they normally hit them, this could be a sign they are struggling to manage their workload.
  • Negative attitudes: if you’re sensing a negative shift in someone’s attitude to work, increased irritability or disengagement from social situations, it may be an early sign of burnout.

The simplest way to find out how your people are feeling about their workload is by asking them directly. This can be done via 1:1 conversations between managers and teams, or on a larger scale through stay surveys. Asking direct questions about workload, role clarity, and whether they feel they have the right skills and training for the role can be a good way to flag potential overload.

And since work overload is one of the most common reasons for leaving a job, exit interviews can be a good source of information on how things can be managed better for the next recruit.

Like any conversation, it’s a two-way street. It’s essential that you’re not only asking the questions, but also listening to the answers – being open and receptive to the feedback you’re receiving rather than just ticking a box.

Easing the overload: some practical ideas

If you realise your employees are overloaded, there are a few things you can do to ease the pressure.

Start by understanding how people are spending their time. Employers are not always aware of all the small tasks that people accrue – after all, someone has to water the plants but the Operations Manager might not be the best person to do it!  You might also immediately spot some inefficient processes – often people have got so used to doing things a certain way they find it hard to recognise new ways. Dig a bit deeper to try to understand which areas are causing the most frustration. Try to find a few quick wins to create efficiencies.

If you find that someone does have too many tasks, group like tasks together and split them up and allocate them according to people’s strengths. Alternatively, you can find areas to outsource to ease the pressure of an under-resourced workforce.  It’s also a good idea to critically look at your processes and see if you can implement new systems or invest in technologies to automate manual tasks.

Allowing people to maintain control over how and when they do their work is one of the essential pillars of workplace engagement and can massively help with retention efforts. Research by the Australian HR Institute shows that people are less likely to experience burnout when they have a choice in what tasks they do, when they do them, and how much time they have to spend on them.

Finally, consider pay reviews, especially for people who’ve been in their role for more than a year. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the price of employee loyalty, with figures suggesting those that stay in their roles are paid 7% less than those who job hop (and if you’re in technology or finance, that number creeps up to double digits). Fair remuneration is the most fundamental of the seven pillars of retention, so make sure your people are being paid for the job they actually do, not the position description they signed up to three years ago.


Looking for ways to keep your people happily engaged and employed for the long run? Download our free guide The 7 Pillars of Retention to discover the key factors that really make a real difference to people’s experience of the workplace.



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