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When Saving Time Wastes Time

People are busy and want to save time.  It’s a fact of life.  But if you’re working to shift a work system toward health, saving time up front can ultimately waste time if you implement poorly formed interventions.

It’s tempting to act before really understanding the foundations of healthy work systems.  People hear about Herzberg’s or Maslach’s work and want to take action.  They feel there’s no time to waste.  But a surface-level, quick action approach seldom leads to effective systems change.

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

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

A friend recently shared a Harvard Business Review article, 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.  It is the natural outcome of the way(s) in which most organizations work.

Moss refers to a few researchers who have been exploring 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 for some reason largely remains ignored.

But when the author starts to explain her understanding of how to remedy poor job design, she moves away from the research she’s citing.  She lifts Herzberg’s work out of its job design context and ends up focusing on the wrong path(s) forward.  She advocates that leaders invest time on surface-level approaches that cannot shift a system toward health.  None of her recommendations have to do with the research in health-promoting work.

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 have and continue to identify.  We can do that based on the research. Why invest in 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, 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 ‘win’? Worse, this approach will not encourage leaders to question the culture they’ve established that is disconnected from local needs, which is a systems issue.

Moss also recommends “management by walking around” –  a 1980s concept.  I’m not aware of any connection between anecdotal management approaches like this 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 changing the structures and processes of work systems, be careful about following their advice. They don’t understand the research they’re citing.

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