A not-infrequent complaint I hear from my Facebook friends is “I couldn’t sleep last night. Too many things on my mind.” In a conversation I overheard at Starbucks, someone said, “I have to get going. I have so many things to do!” I will guess that most of you have also made similar statements in the recent past. In today’s fast-paced world, most of us are becoming, at least on occasion, overwhelmed. I don’t know about you, but when I get that overwhelmed feeling I become less productive, less creative, and generally unpleasant to be around.

Many Suffer

Feeling overwhelmed is actually a fairly common malady. Whether it’s due to stressful personal lives or working lives – or a combination of the two – almost everyone has had that feeling at some point. For many of my friends and Facebook contacts, much of this predicament is self-inflicted. They are entrepreneurs or employees who are doing multiple jobs on the side. For them, this is the “cost” of being on their own. But for most employees, this feeling is not self-inflicted; rather, the pressure comes from their boss and their job.

The Damage Companies Do

American businesses often operate under the premise that they need to do more with less in order to make the most money. They hire people and work them long and hard. They staff their organizations at the minimum level possible in order to spend as little as possible. As a result, many people have more to do than their normal workday will hold. Many people work well over 50 hours per week, according to a 2014 Forbes article. Add to this their personal activities, and the result is that many people do not get enough sleep. They are not only overworked, but they are also exhausted on top of it! There are costs in quality and productivity associated with operating this way.

Many companies believe that in order to maximize profits, they have to minimize the costs associated with staffing. While there is a modicum of truth to this, as Zeynep Ton of MIT’s Sloan School of Management describes in his book The Good Jobs Strategy, companies that overstaff instead of understaffing are actually more profitable. Their employees are better able to think strategically, they serve the customers better, and they are able to cross-train and learn more. Employees who are more knowledgeable, more relaxed, and more creative are able to produce more and sell more.


In HR lingo, this translates to having “engaged” employees. The reality is that most employees don’t want to be overwhelmed and overworked. People, for the most part, want to enjoy their work, and that expectation is on the rise with the new generation of workers coming into the workplace. Those who have been there for a while may have accepted the standard way of operating as normal. But newer workers are demanding a “new normal.” They want to be engaged, but they don’t want to feel pressured by their jobs. They want to have the opportunity to be productive, but not be driven to do so.

What Can Be Done?

What is this “new normal,” and how can we get there? The solution is simple, but getting there is complicated. It is not a Human Resources solution, but HR can help drive it. It requires a totally different way of thinking from within the management team. The answer? Stop overworking your employees. Staff up, so that if someone is out sick, work doesn’t halt or someone else doesn’t get overworked. It is somewhat akin to the concept of redundancy in critical systems. You have a backup control in case one fails. In this case, you have more employees than you’ve had in the past, with the work distributed among them so that if one person has to be out, others can take up the slack.

With an increased staffing level, your employees will have time to think and be creative. They will be able to leave work on time and spend more time with their families. They will get more sleep. A happy, engaged, productive employee makes more money than one who is not.

Will this be easy? The answer to that is a resounding “NO.” Management has to believe that these kinds of changes are worthwhile. They will have to trust that the employees will get the work done and won’t just start slacking off if they ease up a bit. Management needs to have more patience and focus more on the longer-term benefits in order for things to change. HR will not be able to do this alone. They will have to work with the management team and help guide them through the process. Be aware: making this an HR initiative will doom it to failure. It needs to be solidly based on improving the bottom line. If you want examples of successful companies who have implemented these kinds of personnel changes, check out Fortune‘s The Best Places to Work list for success stories.

Andreea Hrab

International HR Director for OSF Global Services, Andreea is a veteran recruiter who has seen them all. She developed HR recruiting strategies and retention programs that guarantees the success of the company. She is a people person and she handles very easy new relationships with new employees, but her most interesting challenge is to find the middle way between company’s best interests and employee’s needs. To learn more about Andreea contact her on LinkedIn.


  • Avatar Marty P. says:

    As you said in the article, feeling overworked is indeed the malady of the 21st century. Employee engagement should no longer be measured by the amount of time spent in the office. A highly engaged workforce is motivated by the work itself, the management environment, the flexibility and inclusion of the workplace, the opportunity to learn and grow, and trust and feedback from leadership.

  • Avatar Sheylla M. says:

    What most managers refuse to see is that understaffing has many hidden costs. Whenever your performance suffers as a result of understaffing, your clients will feel it. Over time, decreased performance could translate into fewer satisfied customers, fewer referrals, less repeat business, and lower revenue.

  • Avatar Cynthia D. says:

    Even though the recession is over, most companies still carry on its legacy: understaffing. However, doing more with less is definitely not a long-term solution. People start feeling pressured and start feeling more like robots. And while this strategy might be productive for a short period of time, the only thing that it guarantees in the long run is employee exhaustion and decreased creativity.

  • Avatar Nathan M. says:

    The risks of understaffing are many, from increased stress, which leads to increased turnover, to customer dissatisfaction and the inability to capture new business opportunities. When organizations attempt to force more work through already constrained production processes, attention to detail tends to suffer. As a result, error rates typically rise; in short, productivity is greatly affected.

  • Avatar Bob Bennett says:

    Having been an engineer, I know the value of efficiency and effectiveness, and as a CLO, I recognize the impact of culture. The trick is to balance them both. Find the passion within a person and they will be engaged and happier, Value the employee and they will feel appreciated. Encourage and empower individuals to take actions, and you have a workforce that builds relationships, provides service, and generates improvements which increase profitability. It is a complicated journey to get there, but well worth the trip.

  • Avatar Jane Otte says:

    There are many risks associated to under staffing your department and workload should always be assessed by the accountable manager to support their people. Over-worked employees are at risk of burn-out and can become disengaged, can be prone to illness and missed time at work, and can of course become less effective in their responsibilities. I agree with Nathan M’s comments about attention to detail suffering and creativity and new ideas and solutions can be diminished when resources are over-loaded with work.

  • Avatar Phil says:

    Could not agree more, but I’d add a couple of points. The article illustrates the current view held by too many companies that employees are costs, completely overlooking that they also bring in the $$ and keep the company running. Those who espouse principles of “Lean Thinking” stress seeing your employees as assets and not just costs. American companies would be shocked the pleasant surprises they might find.

    Second, closely related to the stress induced by severe overwork and lack of appreciation of the worker by ownership or management – and going hand-in-hand with the idea that employees are costs, is the reality that far too many of us are grossly underpaid. So not only are employers not staffing at the levels actually needed to do the work, they’re not even paying that one person doing the job enough to live on. Thus we have side jobs that also don’t pay enough, further adding to personal stress levels and affecting sleep.

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