Will Work Overload Fall Victim to the Great Resignation?

May 9, 2022

The Great Resignation (or, as some have called it, the Great Reshuffle) continues apace in 2022. Recent numbers show that 8.6 million quit their jobs in the U.S., during the first two months of this year.

A recently released study by the Pew Research Center lists the top reasons people left their employers in 2021. The majority are moving on to other jobs rather than leaving the labor market. The reasons vary depending on industries and work segments. The strongest overall drivers are a desire for a higher salary, better learning opportunities and better treatment. No surprise here. What’s shocking though: 53% of job leavers in 2021 said that they switched careers with an aim of finding a job that would be more satisfying over the long term.

Furthermore, recently published McKinsey research, polling people who left the workforce in 2021 and have yet to return, identified the top reasons: uncaring bosses, unsustainable work performance expectations and lack of career development opportunities.


Burning and Churning

Burnout has deservedly gotten loads of attention since the onset of the pandemic. But truth be told, it was a persistent and largely neglected problem afflicting the workplace, long before anyone ever heard of COVID (see “Going to Extremes at Work“). Burnout is seen in many organizations as a problem for individuals to solve. They are encouraged to better manage their time at work and home by regularly exercising, listening to a Mindfulness App, getting more sleep, eating better and so on. While these are all good actions to take, they are directed at the symptoms and not at the root cause of burnout. In the end, the blame for burnout and the responsibility for remedying it, is often placed on the individual worker.

In reality, in many instances, the employer is more responsible for the burnout than the employee. Employers create the conditions that lead to burnout. One of the key drivers of burnout is work overload. It is a common characteristic among employers that demand all-consuming attention to work, and to achieving the operational and financial goals of the company.

Statistics on workloads and the prevalence of overload are few and far between, but various studies conducted over the past two decades point to its insidious impact on workers. The causes are largely structural and cultural, and thus hard to isolate and treat.

For example, many modern corporations manage their talent in the same manner as 1970s auto-guzzled gas. They burn through it at a high rate, while damaging the environment around them and the people that inhabit it. With labor demand far exceeding supply in many industries and fields, fewer companies will be able to get away with “churn-and-burn” talent strategies.


Getting a Grip on Work Overload

In their book, “Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It,” authors Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen methodically examine the causes of work overload and the resulting chronic stress, burnout, attrition and underperformance.

The authors define overload as the sense that there is too much work to do, with the resources at hand. They point out that job insecurity is the emotional engine that motivates submission to a system of intensive work demands and continual overload. The system is driven by corporate cultures that prioritize work and company goals over everything else. Conditions causing overload are reinforced by the policies, practices and behaviors at every level of the organization, and must be endured by anyone wanting a successful career or to simply keep their job.

The pandemic shifted attention to employee well-being and awakened leaders to the need to show empathy toward their employees and the understanding of the personal strains experienced by many workers. However, the Great Resignation suggests that empathy alone, even when genuine, is not sufficient to assuage worker concerns. Fundamental changes must be made to the work environment, including the drivers of overload and stress.


Fix the Job or the Employee?

A debate rages over whether institutions or individuals are responsible for fixing work overload. Below, we dive into two different takes on this question. Both offer useful and practical advice, regardless of where one stands on the issue.

In the latter half of their book, Kelly and Moen describe their methodology for defeating work overload and the results of a controlled experiment they ran with one company to show the impacts of their methods.

Their approach called STAR (Support. Transform. Achieve. Results.) is a tool for redesigning work that reconciles organizational concerns (working effectively) and employee concerns (working in ways that are more sustainable and saner, that reflect their personal and family priorities, and protect their health).

This method brings together workers and their managers in a collective process to determine how to best accomplish objectives in ways that meet the needs of both workers and the organization. The goal is to create a win-win workplace by redefining the rules of the game, and changing the practices that lead to stressful working conditions and overload. New rules are agreed collectively by workers and managers rather, than unilaterally set by leaders. This methodology differs from job redesign and lean management approaches by addressing not just the work domain, but the needs and preferences of the people performing the work.

The approach targets three specific work conditions to make work more manageable over the longer term:

  • Increase employee control over when and where they do work: Allow them to structure their day as they see fit.
  • Promote social support for personal and family lives (including acknowledging the need for time off): Recognize that people who can be their “whole selves” will be more productive; and that promoting balanced and healthy lifestyles enables sustained employee performance and engagement.
  • Manage high work demands by focusing on results rather than time spent in the office or online and by reducing low-value work where possible: Allow staff to concentrate on end goals, and the most productive and sustainable ways to achieve them.

In their article, Collaboration Without Burnout, Rob Cross, Scott Taylor and Deb Zehner describe the results of their research focused on the collaboration behaviors of executives, and conclude that individuals contribute more to workload overload than companies. Executives do this because they want to prove their worth and be seen as invaluable experts. They have a hard time saying no and, as a result, they tend to overcommit.

Some of the methods that Cross, Taylor and Zehner offer to combat overload are useful beyond the executive suite. For example, analyzing calendar entries and email communications to identify how much time is spent on non-essential activities is a crucial first step to decreasing or eliminating them. Blocking out time in the calendar for thinking and reflection is also a great tip. Also, limiting involvement in lengthy, unproductive meetings by declaring that you have a hard stop (real or constructed) is a great tactic, if you can pull it off.

While workers further down the hierarchy may have the same motivations as their leaders, few have the agency or control over their work situations that those above them do. And, in many instances, they may be reporting to an overachieving leader who expects the same behavior from everyone on the team or delegates the work that they have overcommitted to, to their subordinates.

My bet is that work overload is more likely to be driven by factors beyond the control of individual workers. Identifying the causes of the problem is a necessary first step to solving it. Below is an informal, non-scientific diagnostic that can help to flag potential overload drivers that you may be encountering in your work environment (see Fig. 1).


How many of these do you frequently or always experience in your job? One or two are probably tolerable. Three or four signify that you may be straddling the border of work overload territory. A half dozen or more indicate you are well passed the overload threshold.


The Bottom Line

Will continuing record turnover and open positions greatly outnumbering people to fill them lead to fewer workers having to choose between their job and their life? Perhaps. But only if the rules of the game are radically changed, including leadership attitudes, cultural norms, goal-setting practices, resource allocation mechanisms and work processes that drive work overload.