Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Myth of Efficiency, Burn-out, and Role Overload

Originally posted on May 16, 2008

A common source of burn-out and/or employee stress in modern organizations is what I call the myth of efficiency. It assumes that there is a degree of inefficiency in work, and one of the tasks of the efficient professional or competent worker is to figure out how to “cut the fat” and detect those inefficiencies, address them, and as a result, become more productive within the allotted time. This is often unstated, and is basically untrue—though with a modicum of truth in some roles in some situations. It operates more as an assumption, partaking of what would be nice to believe. (It’s a misleading and oversimplified assumption. In another arena, an example of a similarly shallow but deceptively seductive idea is:  “If you stand up to “them” they’ll see you’re serious and that you must be respected and they’ll back down.”)

The problem with the myth of efficiency is that it tends to be subtly accepted by both superiors and subordinates, so that it acts as a type of oppression. People aren’t aware of the actual dynamic, and without explicit awareness there can be no clear and constructive critique. It’s hard to say “no” to a superior when the unspoken assumption is, “Sure you can do this; everyone else is doing it. If you’re competent, you’re efficient. If you can’t do it, you are inefficient and therefore not really competent.”  The truth is that no one else is doing it—at least without having to cut corners in crucial ways. The customers or clients or patients with the least voice go first. Dealing with the subtle nuances of human relationships, the time it takes to really make contact and let a client know they’re listened to, recognized, appreciated, taken into consideration—these “corners” may be clipped off. By the time the clients recognize what hit them they’re too stunned to know what they have a right to complain about.

“Busy,” has, unfortunately, become a widely accepted excuse. It comes from people pretending that the load of need is great, and the service providers are doing the best they can. Who can blame them? That the higher ups are under-staffing is more difficult to criticize because they’re invisible. The even higher ups who are earning larger salaries are even more invisible, inaccessible. They are seen as trying to keep a business going, or subject to the whims of the legislature. The oppression, though, is that no one knows where or how to criticize.

The concept of role offers some help. Certain roles have certain components and demands. The time it takes to fulfill these demands can be estimated. There is such a thing as role overload. Some tasks require two people or three people to achieve the end desire. If very gradually one of those people are let go and the two others take up the slack, and then there are various euphemisms such as “hiring freeze” that makes it all impersonal, role overload occurs. Can a person complain about it? Not if s/he is a “team player. (Here is where unions are needed, but they are currently in culturally low-status.)

Only if people who are feeling the role overload can articulate this situation clearly and present it clearly and in a unified way can the oppression hope to be countered. The middle level manager is as caught up in the squeeze: “We expect you to deliver 10% more but we are giving you 10% less to work with—if you are “efficient” you can do this. That’s what good managers do. They re-allocate resources.” This is unspoken—and it’s bulls**t!—but it’s the game that will go on unless enough people call it for what it is: Squeeze gently and persistently.

There is the anecdote about the frog that if put in hot water will jump out, but if put in cool water—and the water is heated very gradually—will stay in until hyperthermia kills it. (It well may not be true—I suspect the frog will indeed jump out.) However, it does seem to be more true, metaphorically, as a cause of burn-out in many human workers.

What do you think of this analysis? Your input will be appreciated.

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