When Saving Time Wastes Time

When Saving Time Wastes Time

People are busy and want to save time.  Being frantically busy has become a lifestyle. But if you’re working to shift a work system toward health, saving time up front can ultimately waste time.

It’s tempting to act before we fully understand the foundations of healthy work systems.  People hear about Herzberg’s or Maslach’s work and want to immediately act on it.  There’s pressure to save time by jumping into action and implementing something.

I can see the temptation.  It feels good to take action.  Some of the concepts seem straightforward. When we implement we can point to the number of initiatives we’re working on and feel like we’re making a difference.  

But are we, really?  Or are the shortcuts to action actually wasting time in the long run? How many of the projects will actually make a meaningful difference?

A friend recently shared a Harvard Business Review piece, Burnout is About Your Workplace, Not Your People (Moss, 2019).

I agree with the title and intention of the article.  Burnout is not an individual phenomenon.  It has everything to do with the design of our work systems.  My only surprise, at first, was that this basic premise is seen as new enough to publish.

Moss refers to a few researchers who have been researching the causes and costs of burnout (from the 1960s through 2018).  So far so good on making a case that has been made many times but ignored, for the most part.

But things fall apart when Moss starts to explain her understanding of how to remedy poor job design.  She lifts Herzberg’s work out of its job design context and ends up focusing on the wrong path(s) forward.  She is advocating that leaders waste their time on approaches that cannot shift a system toward health because they are surface-level interventions.  None of her recommendations is meant to change the work system itself.

Moss advises leaders to “ask better questions.”  Employees have been over-surveyed for years.  How much more data do we need about what’s wrong before we do something about it? What we need is a systematic response to the stressors employees are identifying.  We can already do that based on the research. Why waste time with more surveying?

Moss suggests using “small, micro-pilots” where people in small groups vote on how to best use resources.  She’s focusing on reducing Herzberg’s dis-satisfiers, which is ok, but at best, a partial solution.  The troubling side to her recommendation is that this path will feel like a substantial investment of time (having people vote to assign local resources can take time), but it will yield little results.  This technique might also have some negative side-effects.  What if there isn’t a clear majority on how to use funds?  How will people feel when they vote and do not see an impact? And it is unlikely to encourage leaders to question the culture they’ve established which is disconnected from local needs, which is a systems issue.

Moss also recommends the use “management by walking around” which is a 1980s concept.  I’m not aware of any connection between anecdotal management approaches and positive shifts in job design and employee health.  Random patterns of talking with employees might feel good to the leader – like they are ‘out there’ connecting with their people, but they are unlikely to lead to system reform.  At best, I’d expect this approach to educate the leader on surface level issues – issues which have likely already been identified on the annual engagement surveys.

Moss then concludes by recommending that wellness programs be preserved.  I’m neutral on this topic.  I love yoga and have a personal meditation practice.  I’m pro-wellness.  But people are so varied that it seems like an expensive approach to organizational health to try to accommodate the majority of employees within a workplace.  A work system approach would be to ensure that employees have the resources (e.g., time, energy, salary) to make good use of their own wellness approaches.

This author has misunderstood the research.  She is leading readers down paths that cannot prevent or heal burnout.   

When people cite Herzberg and Maslach and don’t end up talking about the structures and processes of work systems, take their advice with a truckload of salt.  

Acting from incorrect understandings leads to initiatives that waste everyone’s time.  Learn the research first, then use the research.  Putting in the time up front increases the likelihood of successful implementation.