The Stacking Work Syndrome

By Theresa Welbourne

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How many new projects are waiting for your attention right now? Over the last few weeks, has anyone given you more work without taking time to withdraw projects from your long, “to do” pile?

If you have multiple stacks of work, and you find yourself sitting at your desk on Monday morning unclear about how best to spend your time, then know that you are not alone.

Stacking vs. Prioritizing

The results of the most recent Leadership Pulse research—a study that I run approximately every two months with a sample of over 4,000 leaders around the world—indicate that overall executive energy (engagement, motivation, sense of urgency) at work dropped yet again in July.

Not only did leaders’ energy scores decline since last year at this same time, but executives are saying that they are working at levels where they are not most productive. When I ask them to explain the data, they talk about the stacks.

Stacking work syndrome has been evident in the research data for the last two years, but given the more positive news on the economy over the summer, I thought leader energy would finally start trending upward.

Firms have been downsizing, rightsizing and reacting to slower than desired economic growth. It seems that in order to conserve cash, rather than hiring new employees, many organizations are “stacking” the work. That would be fine if the overall workload did not change, but there are small upward swings in business today, and any new business creates more stacks for those currently employed.

Surfing Projects

When we have stacks, we start surfing. We go from project to project, and we do a little on each one. That means we satisfy the minimal needs of each project, but we complete very little. The lack of success is a de-energizing event, and it leads to the stacks staying relatively high for longer periods of time.

Leadership energy scores are down, but confidence in leadership, the ability to execute on vision, the ability to change, and more have also decreased dramatically during this same period of time.

When you do not complete work, then confidence too goes down. Confidence and energy both predict firm performance; thus, the lower scores are problematic because they are leading indicators of business outcomes.

The Leadership Pulse research shows yet one more downward trend: confidence in the effectiveness of the HR department fell from 56% (reporting they were confidence) to 48% since last year. This may or may not be fair, but leaders and employees often blame HR for the “stacking work” problem. How many times have you heard complaints about not training employees fast enough, not being able to find enough candidates, not being able to hire new people, etc.?

What to Do

I’ve worked with a number of firms experiencing stacking work syndrome, and they have opted to start solving the problem by engaging their leaders in dialogue about energy, burnout and engagement—not focused at the rest of the employee population but at themselves.

It’s a simple solution and sometimes simple is best. These small discussions have led to agreement in priorities, which then cascade to the rest of the employee population and help alleviate the draining effects of stacking work.

Take a look at the more complete leadership report if you need more specific data for your leadership team and use that data to talk about energy, confidence and your own firm’s stacking work syndrome.

Theresa Welbourne, is the founder, president and CEO of eePulse and an adjunct professor of Executive Education at the University of Michigan Business School. If you wish to participate her ongoing leadership study, which is available to you at no cost, please register at: www.umbs.leadership.eepulse.com.