How to Fix Your Company’s Culture of Overwork..

How to Fix Your Company’s Culture of Overwork..

By Matt Dallisson, 11/06/2024

Our relationship with work is becoming increasingly unhealthy. Levels of burnout and stress are at all-time highs. Even before the pandemic, the World Health Organization called stress the “health epidemic of the 21st century.” What is a major source of that stress? Our jobs. Microsoft has conducted several studies analyzing keystroke data and the use of its collaboration software Teams chat feature. Results reveal two disturbing trends: compared with pre-pandemic, during Covid, we were much more likely to work in the evenings, typically in the hours before bedtime, and the number of work messages sent and received on the weekends increased by 200%. Now, three years later, the patterns that emerged in a crisis have been normalized.

When work shifted to home, the boundary lines were blurred, and we’ve grown used to this new, casual surplus of work in the same way anyone gets stuck in a bad habit. What’s even worse is that this increased workload, connectivity to work, and altered communication patterns have been tacked on to our existing schedules, meaning we are working longer and staying more tethered to work than ever before. The harsh reality is this: Overwork is at an all-time high, and the new world of work is only making it worse.

In industrial psychology we use the inelegant term “workaholism” to describe this phenomenon. Workaholism is not someone who works a lot of hours necessarily — in fact there’s only a weak correlation between number of hours worked and problematic “overwork” or workaholism. Instead, the term refers to a deleterious inability to disconnect from work. When work dominates your thoughts and your activities, to the detriment of other aspects of your life, relationships, and health, you are displaying workaholic tendencies. Note this is not a clinical diagnosis — it’s not in the DSM — but the literature on it is deep and convincing. Workaholism is detrimental to both people who may experience it and the organizations they work for, organizations which often unwittingly are fostering it.

When talking to organizations about workaholism — and how they may be enabling it — I’ve heard every excuse you can imagine, multiple times. In an organization with an overwork culture, it’s natural and not all that surprising. For one, the company has succeeded using this approach. Why change it? For another, what I’m suggesting is that it doesn’t work as well as one might think, and the organization ought to change. Given everything we know about organizational culture and how difficult it is to change it, resistance is natural — expected even.

If you don’t want to be one of these organizations, something needs to change. And despite the default responses you have about why change won’t work for you or how your people can sustain the pace, it’s not true — and the alternative to your current modus operandi is not as bad as you think.

Once you’ve acknowledged that change is needed, you’ll need to create a plan for how you’ll overcome a culture of workaholism. Below is a three-step process to start.

Step 1: Assess Your Company’s Baseline Level of Overwork and Its Origins

Figure out where your starting point is by assessing the level of your organization’s overwork culture and who is perpetuating it. What you do next will depend on where your baseline is. Borrowing a concept from training and organizational change literatures, I recommend starting with a needs assessment. This helps to identify areas in need of change, assesses how much support (or resistance) there is to the change initiative, and allows for a comprehensive understanding of training needs at multiple levels of analysis.

There are many frameworks for needs assessments you could adopt. In general, they attempt to answer two key questions:

  • What are the areas in need of change?
  • What kind of support is there for making this change happen?

The assessment should be handled by people with experience doing them — for example, professionals who have been trained in change management. Relationships with top-level managers in the organization need to be established. Some of these managers will react with fear or resistance, so the better the relationship, the higher the likelihood that the results of the assessment will be received.

If people feel threatened by the change and aren’t reassured that they are protected from retribution, the initiative is destined to fail. The overwork culture assessment should target three levels: the organizational level, the job level, and the personal level.  This assessment will reveal what is driving the culture of overwork, how the structure of jobs is driving workaholism, what are the characteristics of individuals who get recognized and rewarded, if those qualities reinforce an overwork culture, and how people feel about their work and the company.

At the end of the assessment, you’ll know just how deeply overwork is entrenched in your culture and, crucially, where some of the key drivers are coming from. In some organizations, it may be almost exclusively driven by leadership. Others may have let technology foster an always-on workforce. Others will focus on job design and HR structures. Surveys and interviews are likely to expose physical and mental health issues and team dysfunctions, driven by workaholism, that you simply weren’t aware were present in the organization.

Step 2: Plan for Incremental Change by Targeting Places Where Change Will Be Most Effective Soonest

At this point, the worst thing you could do as an organization is to say, “We’re going to get rid of our overwork culture and eliminate workaholism.” Change doesn’t work that way. It will be a long process of incremental improvements. The key is that the assessment will tell you where to focus first. Where is change going to be both most possible and most effective?

At this stage, the most important things to do are to clearly identify the purpose and goals of the trial, build trust, carefully outline what the trial period will involve, and clearly communicate the plan to all key constituents.

First, identify the purpose and goals of the trial. Your purpose will be shaped by the data you have gathered and analyzed as part of your assessment. When examining your organization’s baseline levels of overwork culture, it may become clear that pursuing goals such as a four-day workweek is not possible. In these cases, the goal may need to be something smaller — what researchers Leslie Perlow and her team call “micro adjustments to the work practices” — such as changing guidelines around email communication during nonwork time or on weekends.

Trust can come only if culture change efforts involve input from all employees—it cannot come from the top down. I To help build this trust, Harvard Business School professor John Kotter recommends building a “guiding coalition” — a group of individuals from all levels of the organization who are passionate about the change initiative and are respected by their peers.

Second, carefully outline the trial experiment. In my conversations with leaders designing experiments, a couple of things stand out. The first is to resist overthinking to the point that the plan becomes too complex to carry out. Approach the process with an experimental mindset, knowing that you will adapt as you go. Set a concrete start and end date. Identify the scope of the trial — in other words, which team(s) will be involved in the initial trials and how this will be rolled out over time. And be sure to collect pretrial data on anything you’ll be assessing at the conclusion of the trial.

For example, if your purpose is to decrease employee burnout, then make sure to assess burnout before the employees even catch wind of the trial (so you can conduct more accurate pre-post comparisons). I highly recommend utilizing the help of experts anytime you are gathering employee survey data.

Clearly communicate the plan and keep the conversation going. It’s not enough to simply tell key stakeholders, “Look, we’re going to fix our workaholic culture with a new initiative.” You must communicate specifics of your effort and what you’re hoping to accomplish with each experiment. Communication should also not be top down — frequent two-way communication is essential. Seek input from your employees before, during, and after the trial experiment. Make sure you are listening and responding to their concerns.

Step 3: Execute the Trial Experiment, Learn, and Iterate

With a plan in place, it’s time to execute. Contrary to what you might want to do, you shouldn’t announce major changes; you shouldn’t even suggest that you’ve “figured it out.” Start small and meet people where they are. Limit the number of changes you take on and their scope. You may start with one team or department. Or one geography. And make sure you are constantly taking the temperature of employees about the change initiatives. Avoid being ambiguous in your execution. When people aren’t certain about what is happening, they will become risk avoidant and fall back into old patterns.

Say one of your change experiments is to require email signatures that say, “Don’t feel pressured to respond to this in non-work hours.” That seems good, but it remains ambiguous. It doesn’t say “Don’t respond.” And what if it’s from a boss? It might be interpreted like one of those “voluntary” get-togethers that people informally know is actually mandatory. Perhaps the experiment shows that people kept responding to emails despite this. The next step may be to change the language to something like “Do not respond after work hours,” or to even set up rules that prevent emails from being delivered at certain hours.

I’ve offered many starting points for implementing these changes above. And still, I know there will be resistance at the organizational level, as I laid out at the beginning. Despite evidence to the contrary, some leaders and organizations will not be able to easily escape their work devotion schema to see how counterproductive it is to encourage workaholism. They won’t be able to draw the connections between flagging performance and their focus on a 24-7 culture. They won’t see how the effects of workaholism create turnover costs, health-care costs, and productivity costs. Most of all they won’t believe that they can get the same output— indeed, better output—from fewer hours and less connectivity. It’s just not intuitive.

But it’s true. The research is clear. Work cultures that enable overwork are suboptimal. The Covid-19 pandemic was a major development in our realization that the work devotion schema may need adjusting. The success of four-day workweek trials was another. More and more organizations see the value of changing their workaholic culture. You can, too. No more excuses.

This content was originally published here.

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