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Fighting Overwork – What Organizations and Individuals Can Do

Medicaid leaders benefit from expert insight on how to combat overwork, dispel myths, and make individual and organizational changes. 

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Burn out. Overwhelm. Overwork. No boundaries.  Even before a global pandemic struck in 2019, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as a work epidemic. Here in the United States, the way we work is the fifth leading cause of death. Psychosocial stress associated with work environments contributes to both acute and chronic illness. During a recent talk to a group of Medicaid leaders, journalist and expert on overwork, Bridget Schulte, offered a simple conclusion.  Happy, healthy workers do better work. Employers and systems that respect the three great arenas of life – work, love, and play – generate a more productive, equitable workforce.

But before you can get to a better balance, Schulte said, it’s important to dispel a few myths surrounding the American work culture.

Myth #1 – The best workers work all the time. The “ideal worker” is often described as someone who has no caregiving responsibilities and therefore can prioritize work.  Yet the Harvard Business Review indicates 73 percent of all workers — men or women — are some type of caregiver. Companies and organizations build highest productivity by investing in human capital. The opposite of working all the time.

Myth #2 – Mother knows best and is the ideal caregiver. The majority of American mothers work but are still expected to give care. These norms are powerful and ignore the science that men are also hardwired to nurture. Paid family leave in countries like Iceland build capacity across the workforce and neutralize gender stereotypes that have been baked into work roles.

Myth #3 – Leisure is a waste of time.  To the contrary, innovation and ideas are generated when the person is in a relaxed, almost daydreaming state of mind.  Here, associations and connections come together as new ideas. A tired worker, at best, iterates ideas.  A rejuvenated worker creates ideas. Research indicates time scarcity narrows thinking. In busy, frantic times when a worker’s tunnel vision dissolves into solely putting out fires, an individual IQ can drop by 13 points. Building slack into a schedule builds opportunity for creativity and creation.

Organizations looking to combat overwork and overwhelm need to focus on the what rather than the where or the how long when it comes to the myriad ways in which work can get done. Organizational mission, goals, and output should drive where the work is done.  This framework can be a real win for Medicaid since agency workforce is typically attracted to its mission, passing up more lucrative opportunities in the private sector. Greater flexibility in how and where the work gets done demands a change in organizational culture and habits. For example, how do we expand our thinking around:

  • Creating and maintaining connection
  • Recognizing authenticity
  • Managing “presence bias” where the tendency is to reward those that are in the office
  • Using data to be inclusive when assigning work
  • Sending the right social signals around protected leave and other work-life boundaries

What else can organizations do? Challenge dated concepts of the “ideal worker” and articulate who the new worker is in the hybrid environment. Three additional tips for organizations:

  • Reduce demands. Critically dissect how workforce time is used and prioritize what is most important.
  • Give more autonomy to individuals and to teams. Beyond changing policy, leaders change culture by walking the talk.
  • Increase support. A new distributed, digital or hybrid workforce needs a different set of tools to be effective.

Lastly, a solution for individuals experiencing overwork.

Protect your time because it is your most precious resource. Schulte suggests thinking about your schedule as an art gallery. Your priorities are pieces of art in the gallery — curate them carefully and plan for space in between them. Managing boundaries is critical in a new hybrid work environment. In this new normal, workers need to create shape in what can be a shapeless workday.  Set anchors to create boundaries, adopt rituals, establish protocols for your availability using technology and collaboration tools. Ultimately there are great benefits to those afforded hybrid work.  Your job is to be effective at both in-person and digital and understand when you need to be where.


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