How HR Can Help the Overstretched

A key issue affecting many organizations is the problem of workload created by leaner workforces, increasing demands, and maybe even a fear of adding staff in continued uncertain times. New research seems to suggest that large workloads have physical and psychological effects that negatively impact our employees and workplaces. Most recently, large workloads have been linked to high blood pressure, increasing heart rate, and emotional burnout/daily strain (Illies, Dimotakis, & Pater, 2010; Illies, Dimotakis, & Watson, 2010). These outcomes can have negative implications on retention, engagement, motivation, and well-being – all of which influence our business. Not to mention that the individuals shouldering the increased workloads are our top performers. They’re overstretched (Economist, 2010).

There are many ways organizations can solve the workload problem which can be spearheaded in HR or at the managerial level.

  • Clearly inform employees of business priorities. Too often employees spend quite a bit of time working on non-significant tasks that aren’t necessarily directly aligned with business priorities. This is usually due to poor communication of work priorities.  Encourage your managers to inform employees of the most critical business priorities and have them focus their efforts on those.  Also encourage managers to check in on employees to make sure they are working on things that are most critical to the business or the department (Friedman, Christenson, & DeGroot, 1998).
  • Analyze jobs. As HR professionals, one of your main duties is to continually analyze jobs and make sure you have accurate job descriptions in place for employees – which should be the foundation of all your HR practices. If you use a position analysis questionnaire or similar method of gathering data regarding employees’ job duties, this information can be of use in solving workload issues. With this information, you can identify the frequency in which employees are doing a particular task or duties/responsibilities that are not critical to the job.
  • Address training needs. When ERC conducts training needs assessments for organizations, we find that three predominant training needs usually emerge across the entire workforce – time management, decision-making, and problem solving. All three skills can be time-killers if used ineffectively. Signs of need for training on these topics include failure to solve problems, indecisiveness, untimely, or poor decision-making, and poor use of time.
  • Experiment with how work gets done. Large workloads are usually indicators of inefficiencies in the system by which work is accomplished.  They are also opportunities to improve the way work is currently completed. Analyze where processes can be improved or where new technology could benefit your staff. Also analyze if there are individuals on staff that could do the task better or more efficiently or whether the task can be done at an alternative location (such as a telecommuting option) (Friedman, Christenson, & DeGroot, 1998). Turn the problem into an opportunity and challenge.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate employees’ many roles.  Simply acknowledging and even celebrating employees’ personal lives and roles outside the office is another way organizations can reduce the negative impacts of large workloads. This involves recognizing an employee’s multiple roles – a father, mother, employee, son, daughter, volunteer – and the employee as a whole person (Friedman, Christenson, & DeGroot, 1998). Many times, these multiple roles can also serve the workplace, if personal talents are identified and used strategically.  Organizational support can be a powerful method when it comes to helping employees cope with workloads. Studies have found that it can mitigate negative effects that workload has on employees. HR can be the driver of a supportive climate by instituting supportive policies, philosophies, and cultural aspects of the organization.
  • Increase autonomy.  Many organizations struggle with increasing employees’ autonomy.  Make no mistake, however, that job control is also an important solution to the workload problem. Employees with more control over the ways their work is accomplished are able to deal with their workloads more effectively than those with less control.
  • Integrate coping skills into your wellness program. Stress management and coping skills should be an integral part of your wellness program or initiative. A good way to cover these topics is through education – lunch n’ learns, tips, written material, etc. If your organization has a particularly busy season during the year, several organizations integrate a “stress buster” day. Our friends in the financial services industry have even been known to offer massages in the workplace during tax season.

In general, organizations have three choices to their approach to workload and employee work/life practices. With one approach, either the employee will make a tradeoff between the business or their personal life, but neither results in a “win-win.”  With another approach, the employee and the manager work together to find ways to work together to meet the company and employee’s needs.  This is the approach many organizations take.  Finally, the last approach uses practices that not only meet work/life needs, but also add value to the business. (Friedman, Christenson, & DeGroot, 1998). Remember, when addressing issues or workload and work/life, that those practices that not only deal with the problem but also add value to your business are the best approaches.


  • Friedman, S. D., Christenson, P., & DeGroot, J. (1998). The end of the zero-sum game. Harvard Business Review.
  • Ilies, R., Dimotakis, N.; & Pater, I. (2010). Psychological and physiological reactions to high workloads: Implications for well-being. Personnel Psychology. 63(2).
  • Illies, R., Dimotakis, N., & Watson, D. (2010). Mood, blood pressure, and heart rate at work: An experience-sampling study. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. 15(2).
  • Overstretched (2010). Economist 395(8683).

Additional Resources

  • HR Consulting – For assistance with analyzing jobs and creating job descriptions and other issues related to designing jobs and workforce planning, email
  • Training – For assistance in identifying training needs or for training in a variety of topics including time management, decision-making, and problem solving, email
  • HR Help Desk (members only) – For more information as well as sample policies, procedures, and best practices related to the topics discussed above, email
This entry was posted in Benefits & Leave, Communication, General HR, Health & Safety, Training & Development and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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