Overwork is pervasive. It is a lose-lose proposition.

Back in the 1980s and 90s, General Electric was run by the renowned CEO Jack Welch. During his tenure, Welch fired some 200,000 employees. There was one problem with Welch’s move to make GE leaner and meaner. It just felt mean to a lot of employees. Why? A small city of employees was gone, but the workload hadn’t changed. Those who survived the massive firings found themselves massively overworked.

Today, overwork is one of the more pervasive problems across industries. Overwork is a huge drag on employee well-being and a significant driver of burnout. We all have periods of too much to do and too little time to get it done. There’s nothing wrong with an intense sprint here and there, particularly when employees are engaged and feel well-supported. But when the pressure of “I never have enough time in the day” becomes relentless, your people will become less effective and they will burn out.

Burnout wreaks a huge toll on the individuals who suffer from it, and it can negatively affect your entire business due to absenteeism, disengagement, compromised performance, reduced productivity, and attrition.

Employees who report they experience significant burnout report that they are:

  • 63% more likely to take a sick day
  • 50% less likely to discuss how to achieve goals with their manager
  • 23% more likely to visit the emergency room
  • 2.6x (that’s 260 percent!) more likely to be actively seeking a new job

Note the last bullet point above. When people are overworked and burned out, they will leave. This compounds the issue of overwork on remaining employees, and before you know it people are walking out the door faster than you can say “Great Resignation.”

What to do about overwork?

The easy answer – which might actually work in some cases – would be to hire more people. I certainly feel that is the answer when waiting in line at Starbucks. [By the way, waiting in line around the block at Starbucks Reserve was actually totally worth it.] Unfortunately, hiring more employees is often not possible given labor shortages and budgetary constraints. More importantly, though, it is NOT the right solution if it doesn’t give your organization a competitive edge. If overwork is due to inefficiencies in processes, poor communication, or other systemic issues, hiring more people is not necessarily going to help your business compete better.

In that case, the answer is to reduce work to become more efficient and competitive. Done right, you’ll also have an excellent opportunity to increase meaning at work, enhance organizational culture, attract more employees and improve retention. Sounds good, right? So, how do we get to this win-win?

We use a process to find and remove unnecessary or low-value work.

Given how seemingly cavalier Jack Welch was in firing 200,000 people, you might wonder why the GE CEO is so legendary. One reason is that he was an excellent problem-solver. He realized that he’d caused a problem with overwork, and he was determined to solve it.

To keep the lean structure Welch envisioned, GE needed to reduce the burden of overwork. Welch was very much into creating efficiencies, which is one of the reasons he fired so many people – he thought there was too much bureaucracy and redundancy. Welch and his team created a process to find tasks that were simply not necessary to the success of the business, and eliminate them – quickly and without bureaucratic logjams. His team came up with a process they dubbed WorkOut.

WorkOut is a great framework to uncover and mitigate organization-wide systems that cause overwork. It can also work wonders in reducing bureaucracy and creating efficiencies. The cross-functional, bottom-up approach, is driven by the people closest to the problem at hand (who might just work on the assembly line).

WorkOut has multiple benefits:

  • Finds and removes work that is unnecessary to the success of the business
  • Streamlines, simplifies, and improves existing processes
  • Speeds up decision making and implementation
  • Eliminates bureaucracy
  • Cultivates grassroots solutions
  • Builds a more empowered workforce
  • Works quickly, often in less than 100 days

WorkOut is ideal for problems that cut across organizational boundaries. My colleague, Celia Kirwan, ran a WorkOut for a large financial firm. During the WorkOut process, the team found that a department of analysts spent a huge amount of time creating voluminous reports. These reports were then sent over to the institutional accounts department. What the analysts didn’t know is that their reports were about as valuable to the institutional bankers as a phone book. They were never read.

Reduce Overwork and Improve Culture

The benefits of WorkOut go beyond reducing unnecessary work and streamlining processes. It builds new capabilities that can lead to greater organizational success. By bringing cross-functional teams together, new networks are opened up which increases communication, collaboration, and trust.

Hierarchical boundaries are broken down: senior-level management now has more direct communications across the org chart and vice-versa.

WorkOut helps everyone think more expansively about their work so they better understand how it fits together in the bigger picture. In short, it helps turn every worker into a knowledge worker who thinks more along the lines of “how is my work adding value, and how can I improve my work so it adds more value?” This change creates more meaning at work for every employee. From the bottom up, there is a sense of skin in the game.

Having skin in the game, an ability to develop and improve, and a voice that is heard, are all important parts of building meaning at work. When you reduce overwork AND build meaning, you’ve got the wind at your back, my friend.

Not convinced? The importance of each employee finding meaning at work cannot be underestimated. In a 2018 study, BetterUp found that providing greater meaning at work results in employees taking fewer sick days and working additional hours each week. BetterUp found that this translated to generating an additional $9k per worker annually.

While we don’t necessarily recommend that you emulate Jack Welch and go out and fire a small city’s worth of your employees, we do suggest that you follow his lead and reduce or eliminate work that burdens your people and does not provide value. Along the way, you’ll see great things happen: breaking down bureaucracy, improving collaboration and partnering, and giving those most affected a leading voice in the change. When employees feel valued and empowered and see that they can be the drivers to move themselves and their organization to a place that works better inside and competes better outside, everybody wins.

About the author

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Bruce heads BolsterUp, a coaching and consulting firm. Along with his colleagues, he guides clients in improving employee experience, creating high-performing teams, and increasing well-being and joy at work. BolsterUp helps forward-thinking leaders make their organization the place everyone wants to work.

Bruce specializes in helping teams work better together and managers to lead more effectively through better partnering, communication, and understanding. He coaches internationally, focusing on strengths-based development, professional capability-building, peak performance, resilience, and well-being.