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Taking Control and Responsibility for Burnout

At the outset of the Industrial Revolution, known as the Age of Mass Production, Frederick Taylor published “The Principles of Scientific Management.” In 1909 (113 years ago) the six principles aimed to optimize and simplify jobs to increase productivity.  This held true in manufacturing and labour-intensive work environments at least until 1946.  Following this came the Age of Automation.

What came to be known as ‘Taylorism’ is now thought to be outdated for many reasons, some of which I’ll cover in this article.

In early 2021, the World Economic Forum proclaimed that . . . .

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution represents a fundamental change in the way we live, work, and relate to one another. It is a new chapter in human development, enabled by extraordinary technological advances commensurate with those of the first, second and third industrial revolutions.

These advances are merging the physical, digital, and biological worlds in ways that create both huge promise and potential peril.

The speed, breadth and depth of this revolution are forcing us to rethink how countries develop, how organisations create value and even what it means to be human. “

In my view, this statement is reason enough to repel the idea that scientific management continues to be valid, despite it being practiced in many environments.

Management thinking and practices have evolved as a result of increased understanding of human and organizational behaviour, the economic climate, environmental context, and the changes in generations over time.

white coupe on gray concrete road
Burnout is a human condition – we are not mechanical beings

How does Taylorism relate to burnout in the workplace?

One of the advantages of the scientific management approach is the equal division of responsibility between Management and Employees.  However, in the past 30 years, we have seen management abdication in the equitable allocation of work based on capacity. 

Employees’ responsibilities and expectations are clearly defined, yet the capacity to deliver on expectations is not established or measured, rendering employees less effective, therefore, much less efficient.  Not dissimilar with management.  Their focus has changed from ‘production’ to other less tangible matters.  The largest management attention grabbers for management capacity include:

  • Communication, Strategy, Digitalization, Reputation, Social Media, Geopolitics, Competition, Globalization (or not)   PLUS
  • Change Management, Risk Management
  • Quality Management, Crisis Management

When individual capacity is exhausted, effectiveness is not achievable, and efficiency, far less, due to the tendency for frequent mistakes.  Mistakes cost time and money, and they also have a long tail effect – meaning that there can be several unintended consequences of a simple mistake. One of those is employee burnout. 

A closer look at effectiveness provides depth into its importance.  It is oriented for capacity, a process design that achieves a defined outcome, is goal oriented, but is not time-limited.  Efficiency is the opposite – having in common only the achievement of a goal.

A Scientific Management Example: 

The goal is for 2 workers to assemble a car on the assembly line in one day. (Time, effort, and process-specific goal).

That may still work in the GM or Ford plant, but it will not work at Facebook, Oracle, Google, Deloitte, Macy’s or any environment that is not production-based.


Where is burnout visible?

man sitting in front of table
faceless communication

Scientific management is outdated. But it is still alive in some modern workplace cultures.  In environments where there is too much importance on efficiency, such as call centres; service and relationships suffer.

Where there is little consideration for the human element – employees are considered as robots, which could speed up or process any amount of work, despite the inability to increase their capacity.

Using scientific methods to determine and standardize the work through the use of authority and surveillance of employees introduces a new kind of stress, previously unknown.

Limitations of scientific management

Scientific management has limitations indeed!

  • The benefits of increased productivity are not shared with employees, resulting in a negligible change in their economic condition.
  • The work is depersonalized resulting in employees doing the same kind of work every day, which leads to monotony, boredom and high turnover.

Examples of Taylorism in action:  

  • Mcdonald’s uses one standardized and timed process to make a burger, which employees must follow.
  • Amazon maximizes efficiency by standardizing the tools and techniques for completing each task involved with a given order.  Recently the Economist described Amazon’s culture as Digital Taylorism.
  • Hospitals are timing emergency departments and determining the shortest possible amount of time to attend to a patient.

You are likely to come up with several more examples.

white robot near brown wall
People are not robots

In today’s society, the workplace, and the people in it are far more complex than a set of principles that can be summarized on one page.

It has been said and bears repeating – Burnout can only be resolved by aligning the culture to a set of values that regard people as the most valuable assets of the organization.  It requires critical thinking, innovative problem solving, meaningful collaboration, professionalism, a work ethic, and transparent communication across every level.

Study after study shows that companies with strong values that are shared and lived by, have better financial performance, customer and employee satisfaction, and grow faster.

To attract the best and brightest people, young and old, companies must take a stand on profound questions being raised today about the value of human activity and capacity in the workplace.  People want to do “good work.” They want intrinsically rewarding experiences, and they also want to contribute fitting with their values.

Once a company defines and promotes its values, employees come to understand the behaviours that are expected of them that will lead to success. At that point, the decision is theirs.

The question to answer is:  How can we achieve great performance yet help our people to thrive?

Choose to explore some answers and options.  Uvidi Management Group can help.  Contact us for a complimentary consultation.

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