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Overworked Employees? 15 Signs You May Be Pushing Workers Too Hard

Do you feel your team isn’t working up to their potential? You may be right—and there may be some simple fixes.
August 17, 2016

Workplace stress and unhappiness can profoundly affect your business. Many business owners (including yours truly) care deeply about our businesses. Caring so much means you may have very high standards of excellence. And you may tend to compound the demands during periods of high growth.

Yet staff can typically be limited in a small business, and trying to accomplish so much can mean putting stress on your employees. Managers trying to please you and meet goals may in turn place heavy demands on employees. Your policies and culture may lead to employees being overworked to the point of burnout. You may not even realize the stress employees are under and the resulting problems it can cause.

Here are 15 early warning signs of an unhealthy workplace atmosphere and some common culprits that might indicate you may have a culture of overworked employees, along with ways to help remedy the situation.

Examine internal processes to see how they can be adjusted, automated or outsourced to decrease employee overload. Consider setting a goal to send people home at reasonable hours.

1. Heightened Emotional Displays

You might think that emotion and work don't mix, but your employees are still human. When you encounter someone who's crying or upset due to the pressures of the job, it's possible to handle the situation in a way that's both professional and sensitive.

Listen, be comforting and focus on the employee. Try to find out what's going on, but don't push them. Don't try to get them to stop crying. Let the tears flow, and resist the urge to consider them unprofessional.

2. Lack of Team Mentality

Cohesive teams tend to require a degree of trust among employees. They should think and speak of themselves as members of a team, and communicate openly and not behind one another’s backs. A strong team is not likely to disregard one another’s thoughts and feelings.

Encourage open communication among all parts of your team. You can remind them of the benefits of working together through the old adage: “A burden shared is a burden halved.”

3. Habitual Lateness

This could be a situation where you have to pick your battles. If employee tardiness is disrupting workflow, creating more pressure on other employees and causing problems with clients, you may need to step in.

You could talk to the employee and find out what's causing the tardiness. He or she may need to commit to the established start time, or you could come to another acceptable arrangement for both sides.

4. Finger Pointing

When things get tough, do people tend to start throwing around blame? It can happen, but that doesn't mean it's good for your team.

Try to counter this impulse among your employees by admitting your own missteps, assigning blame in private and making sure your team members feel comfortable coming to you when they make a mistake. You could emphasize solving the issue in the future, not laying blame for the past.

5. Limited Time for Personal Life

"Married to my job." If that description seems to be fitting more and more of your employees, it could be a sign they're overworked. You can help by making things easier on them in ways that still let them get the job done through:

  • telecommuting or flex hours
  • a compressed workweek
  • working from home one day a week

A lot of companies have a work-life balance policy, and it may be time to construct one for your business. Try to practice what you preach and have managers do the same.

6. More Employees Calling In Sick

Work-related stress can lead to health problems—everything from digestive problems to heart disease to weight gain. You could encourage everyone to take a lunch break away from their desks and move around during the day. Consider adding a few picnic tables outside. You can do small things to encourage employees to get a little exercise and take short breaks—often that can be enough to help reduce stress levels.

7. High Employee Turnover

Are you seeing a lot of new faces? Losing your best employees? To help you combat a high turnover rate, while sweetening the pot, you can consider:

  • Providing employee outings in the form of volunteer work by letting employees volunteer at the local animal shelter or food bank once a month during work hours.
  • Increasing vacation time by granting a few extra days or another week.
  • Offering additional personal days in exchange for extra time spent on projects.
  • Creating a casual dress day in the office one day a week.
  • Reviewing compensation packages at least once a year.
  • Providing lunch for employees once a week.

8. Long Work Hours and Working Weekends

It's a paradox: The more people work, the less productive they may be. In some businesses, somewhere along the way, workers can find themselves putting in 50- or 60-hour workweeks, giving up weekends and getting much less sleep. Yet it’s not necessarily making employees or workplaces any more productive. Besides, you may be breaking wage and hour laws.

You should examine internal processes to see how they can be adjusted, automated or outsourced to decrease employee overload. Consider setting a goal to send people home at reasonable hours.

9. Decreased Customer Satisfaction

When employees don’t serve customers well, it may be a sign of being stretched to the breaking point.

Or it could be passive resistance to company conditions. Keeping the lines of communication open may help you learn what’s going wrong and why. You might examine whether your mission statement addresses serving customers well, and put reminders of your mission statement around.

Set expectations with customers, too. Over-promising may add to employee stress.

10. Formation of Cliques

When cliques develop in your office, it can mean not everyone is sharing ideas, and that resentment can build among team members who feel left out, and even possibly lead to isolation and burnout.

Cliques can also lead people to do things they don't really want to do—take part in certain activities, watch certain TV shows—just to feel included. If you see cliques developing, try to break them up by assigning people from different groups to work on projects together.

11. Lack of Employee Empowerment

You may be the boss, but that doesn't mean you can do everything better. If you're not delegating, you may be undermining your team, and ironically, this can lead to employees being more, not less, overloaded.

Train employees how to do their jobs, then trust them to take on important tasks and make important decisions—unless and until they should prove otherwise.

Employees may get in the habit of taking small decisions to you, and that can be a hard habit to break. Every time a decision is laid on your desk, you should ask your managers or employees how they would solve it. If your people are empowered to solve problems on their own, they're likely to get tasks done faster, because you don’t become the bottleneck. It can also boost their confidence and self-esteem. To adapt another adage: “Happy employees, happy work life.”

12. No Time for the Team to Bond

It can be key to let your staff bond outside of work, even if it may get a little expensive. Not doing so can lead to lack of team spirit. Out-of-office trips—dinners, hikes, a night at a baseball game—can let them relax and connect. 

13. Employee Suggestions Going Nowhere

No one's saying you should implement everything your employees suggest. But when you don't listen to anything they say, they may stop making suggestions, causing good ideas to die quiet deaths and possibly leading good employees to burn out or even quit.

You can act on some of the more potent ideas, or explain why you can’t accept an idea—so the person at least knows you considered it.

14. Everyone Being Treated the Same

By assuming everyone on your team is the same and then acting accordingly, you can be setting yourself up for middling results and frustrated employees.

The people on your team may have different skills, personalities and perspectives and are likely to learn at different speeds. They can deliver different levels of effort and results.

Recognize the differences.

15. No Celebration of Employee Excellence

Or at least you may not be making these celebrations public. When the general atmosphere is more on the negative and less on the positive, employee morale can tend to follow suit.

Take some time to openly congratulate team members who have done some outstanding recent work. By celebrating them in public, you may be motivating them and their coworkers to do better in the future, while amping up positive energy.


For more tips to help you achieve a better work-life balance, watch the exclusive video series, made in partnership with MSNBC: Work-Life Balance: Tips from the Trenches.


Read more articles about motivating employees.

A version of this article was originally published on August 31, 2015.

Photo: iStock