06th October 2023
What Factors Are Contributing to Burnout in Your Organization?
Organizations are facing unprecedented levels of burnout, leading to “quiet quitting,” reduced innovation, and higher healthcare costs. Collaborative demands, referred to as the collaborative footprint, have increased over the past 15 years, causing stress due to potential misunderstandings, imbalances, and more. One form of this stress is “microstress” from routine interactions. Leaders can reduce microstress by addressing four key questions: reducing structural complexity, ensuring workflows make sense, avoiding excessive team proliferation, and instilling a sense of purpose in everyday interactions. Reducing microstress leads to a healthier and more productive work environment.
Organizations around the world are experiencing unprecedented levels of burnout, which is creating a significant — and under-recognized — cost to organizations in the form of quiet quitting, reduced innovation, and even spiraling healthcare costs. Many people are quick to point to an increase in overall workload as the culprit. But our research shows that the work itself has not increased so much as the collaborative demands of the work.
By that, we mean the volume and frequency of the collaborations that people have to engage in to complete the work — what we call the collaborative footprint — have risen over the past decade and a half, bringing exponential opportunities for stress. This comes through the increased potential for misunderstanding, misalignment, and imbalances of workload and capacity, among other things. All of this combines to create a battering of everyday stresses.
One form of this stress is the one we call “microstress” — small moments of stress from interactions with colleagues that feel routine but whose cumulative toll is enormous. Our research into high performers has made clear the destructive impact of unchecked microstress, both on individuals and on teams. At the team level, this form of stress propagates through networks and relationships.
It may seem challenging to find ways to reduce stress on teams that are overloaded with deliverables, but leaders have more tools at their disposal than they may realize. Instead of relying only on coaching on individual coping strategies, leaders can look for systemic improvement in the collective working environment. We have identified four overlooked collective strategies that leaders can implement for reducing microstress. Here are the four key questions you need to ask.
Can we reduce structural complexity?
For decades organizations have been building organizational complexity — not only in expanding spans and layers in traditional hierarchical structures (expanding the number of direct reports to reduce layers between the front line and the C-suite), but also in moving to matrixed, networked, or other more agile ways of working. While new these structures can be effective at increasing flexibility, they have also unintentionally introduced complexity by multiplying the required number of interactions per employee. We routinely see organizations adopting advice to move to structures with consistent spans of control (the number of people one is responsible for managing) of eight people. But such efforts to improve efficiency don’t consider the collaborations required to do the work. The collaborative footprint of work — which has risen 50% or more in the past 15 years, according to Rob Cross’s research — is creating exponential opportunities for small stresses to run rampant in any organization. Unchecked, such complexity, can easily accumulate, triggering a proliferation of microstresses.
De-layering might seem to be a solution, but in embracing it many organizations have moved to spans of control that really are not feasible given the collaborative intensity of the work. (We’ve even seen some organizations scaling up to spans of control of 12 or more.) Such flat hierarchy can create stress for employees balancing competing objectives of multiple leaders to whom an employee might report, formally or informally.
Removing layers, while appealing on cost analyses and decision-making flows, also often introduces other less visible inefficiencies around work. Many teams are underperforming today due to priority overload where too many uncoordinated asks are coming into the teams from disconnected stakeholders and failures of coordination and prioritization at high levels in the organization.
One way to fix that is to have explicit processes to remove excessive complexity. It may not be possible to rewind all of these efforts at de-layering organizations, but there are a few simple practices you can employ to root out the potential for unnecessary stress from structural complexity. Most companies have many ways of introducing new complexity, but no systematic continuous effort to remove it. Netflix is one of a handful of firms known for prioritizing identifying and removing unnecessary complexity. As their company policy states, “We work hard to … keep our business as simple as possible … you don’t need policies for everything.” If you must introduce new teams or procedures, consider making them temporary. Create them with an explicit sunset clause, such that it is dissolved when no longer useful, avoiding the gradual ratcheting of complexity over time.
Companies can also control complexity by continually simplifying the product portfolio, which is often a key driver of complexity. Trader Joe’s has a such a policy for controlling the number of SKUs to maintain the number at less than 10% of the industry average. Similarly, LEGO controls the number of colors and brick types in its products, to control manufacturing and logistical complexity.
Above all, don’t just think about on paper efficiency, think about the collaborative asks being placed on human beings who execute these tasks day in, day out. When we have asked top teams in offsites who in the room wants another email, meeting, or phone call in their lives, we have yet to see a single hand shoot up. The more complex, the more matrixed, the more required communication and connection between employees, the more ad hoc the more microstresses are going to be impeding the effectiveness of work.
Read the full article to find out how to streamline your workflows, whether the profusion of teams spiked employees’ microstres and the importance of builing a sense of purpose in our employees’ everyday interactions.
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