Brain Dead and Brain Dry

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Jul 28th, 2010

It is entirely possible to be worked to death. Statistically speaking, at least. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 5,214 work related fatalities in 2008. Interestingly enough, 453 work related fatalities were homicides. Given that there are around 134 million employees in the United States, your odds of being worked to death are very close to 0. Don’t cancel your life insurance policy just yet, though. Just because you don’t see your employees or fellow “cubers” falling out in the floor from work exhaustion, that doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering a type of death…brain death, that is.

Work culture is fixated on removing all of the “free time” from work. When I was a newly minted supervisor, I agreed with this culture. Employees need to be working every minute of the hour. After all, that is what the company is paying them for, right? Yes, and No. All companies, including yours, are paying employees to produce a service. Even if this service is intangible, it is still a product that reaches an end-user.

So, yes – your company is paying employees to produce. But, as managers, should we really be concerned with the path to getting there – as long as the outcome is a quality product? I say, nope. And, let’s face it. As much as we want employees to work every single minute of the day, we know they don’t. Rather than set unrealistic work expectations that rarely get met, why not be reasonable with our employees. Adding unstructured time as part of the official work structure is a way of saying to your employees, “I trust you.”

Recent wisdom, from authors such as Tom DeMarco, tells us that the products employees produce would be of better quality if employees had more “free time”. DeMarco’s book, Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency, instructs us that – take a deep breath, here – people are not machines. Employees require downtime, opportunities for reflection, and flexibility to reach the peaks of productivity.

Much of DeMarco’s thesis is counterintuitive to the current culture of overworked middle managers, reduced overhead, and slim budgets. You know what, though? I am totally buying it. Not because I want to encourage departments full of slackers, but because I believe innovation can only be born of reflection. To retain a competitive edge in any industry, companies must deliver effectiveness, not mere efficiency. I am not wholly concerned with how quickly my employees make it to the finish line if the soles of their sneakers are worn out and they forgot to tie their shoelaces. Those two defects – the soles and the shoelaces – will undoubtedly lead to an injury or fall in successive races. Such setbacks endanger the future of productivity. Managers with long term goals of success must ask themselves whether their immediate focus on productivity is going to serve them well overtime.

If not, take a break and change strategies.

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