The Connection to Productivity

Substantial evidence indicates that stress and burnout are significant factors affecting productivity. You already know this!  So then, what causes all that stress and burnout?

Did you know that 86% of employees have experienced moderate to extreme stress in the past year, primarily from work?  This is according to Headspace, in their recently published Workforce State of Mind report.

Several cross-sectional studies have highlighted a direct correlation between high levels of stress and reduced productivity. This underscores the importance of each individual’s role in managing stress and burnout, which can significantly contribute to productivity levels. The ‘Personal Responsibility for Stress’ is one way to look at it.  Another way would be to examine what businesses are doing to reduce the stress they put on employees.

This is the riskiest of conversations – and it does not happen around the water cooler.

The stress inducers are the managers and executives who place demands and set expectations exceeding most employees’ capabilities.

In this context, let’s examine the ‘capabilities’ necessary to be productive.  They are

1. Skills/Tools +

2. Capacity + 

3. Taking Action.

These are three elements that define capabilities.  Like a three-legged stool, you need all three to stand up effectively.

Productivity is largely hampered by a lack of capacity – In essence, to DO MORE WITH LESS.  The intent with ‘less’ is about less resources, less time, less effort, less, less, less.  In reality, the result is – less action, less will, less energy, less motivation, less initiative, less productivity . . . Shall I go on?  What you end up with is a pit of mediocrity.  That is what has been achieved with low productivity levels.

Burnout and stress occur when one’s capacity has been reached.  We all know this already, yet businesses have been breaching that limit for decades, and workers keep at it because their jobs may be on the line if they don’t comply.

When I started my post-secondary education in business and economics, one of the first things I learned was how productivity is achieved. At the time, it seemed a fairly simple and logical equation.

One of the foundational concepts related to productivity was the increasing focus on effectiveness first and efficiency second. This involved optimizing processes, effectively utilizing resources, and improving overall output without compromising quality. I believe these are still primary objectives for businesses today.  Yet the efforts to achieve efficiency have been a source of problems – problems that are now huge burdens.

Over the past few decades, where has it all gone wrong?

In my view, organizations must adapt their practices and resources to the conditions necessary to raise productivity and improve workplace balance.  The outdated concept of ‘Continuous Improvement’ has evolved into more dynamic and adaptive approaches such as agile methodology, lean management, and innovation-driven practices. These newer concepts focus on flexibility, rapid iterations, and customer-centricity.  This is an updated form of alignment that considers the strategic and operational features for productivity and effectiveness.

As a strategic and operational risk practitioner, I have found several factors in business to be key indicators of risk to performance & productivity.  After all, the purpose of most businesses is to create value, but not at the expense of others.

I have been influenced by leading thinkers in how I have helped clients evolve the practice of risk management with strategy and change management over the past 30 years.  In applying my own learning to these practices, here’s my perspective on what must change to reduce stress/burnout and improve productivity markedly without raising the risk factors.

  1. Depth of Management Skills

Management ‘First Principles’ as the foundational concepts for developing leaders and managers were pioneered by Peter Drucker and followed by Stephen Covey.  These principles are timeless and universally applicable, guiding managers in how they lead, organize, and operate within an organization. Weak management induces stress. Some examples include clarity of purpose, accountability and responsibility, communication, transparency, empowerment, delegation, customer focus and ethical behaviours.  These first principles serve as a framework for effective management practices and help leaders navigate challenges and make informed decisions in a dynamic business environment.

  1. Stretching People Beyond Their Capacity

Learning from Daniel Kahneman’s work, I would attribute this behaviour to an optimism bias, where individuals tend to overestimate their abilities and underestimate the amount of work.  Individuals will make decisions that are influenced by social pressure, fear of reprisal, or previous successes, leading them to take on tasks even when they know they cannot do them well.  This emphasizes that decisions often are a result of automatic thinking processes, which can lead us to push ourselves beyond our limits (causing stress/burnout) in situations where a more rational assessment is necessary.

  1. The Number of Costly Problems  

In our complex environments, we need critical and systems thinkers more than ever.  Russell Ackoff’s work teaches us the importance of interconnectedness.  Organizations have various components that must work together to impact overall performance and productivity. If employees cannot understand the functioning of entire systems, they will focus on individual parts getting burned out in the process.  Working on solving problems one part at a time is a productivity killer. 

Remember . . .  Einstein believed, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

  1. Change Management

Resistance to change will hinder productivity and effectiveness at every turn.  Working with strategies recommended by Peter Senge, having an understanding of the different stages of change helps to alleviate conflict and stress and keep teams informed, engaged, and aligned through effective communication.  Strategies to foster a growth mindset and adaptability will build the resilience so needed when in the midst of change.  While planning the process of change is helpful, it also requires strategies for dealing with unexpected left turns. This is where leadership must demonstrate confidence and compassion for the road ahead because a failed change initiative will kill any chance of productivity.

  1. Moving Too Fast, Not Thinking it Through

Slowing down to go faster creates a demonstrable shift in how programs/projects are completed. It would raise the percentage of those that succeed versus those that predictably fail.  In a world driven by projects, the influence of Roger Martin is eye-opening as he discusses the increasing need for design thinking and integrative thinking.  To be successful with big projects, it’s more important to delay the planning and implementation (The ‘How’) until there is absolute clarity around ‘Why’ the project is important.   Understanding the purpose reduces a lot of the stress. Asking the 5 W’s is always the better starting point.

In conclusion, addressing each of the foregoing factors by enhancing management skills, promoting rational decision-making, fostering systems thinking, managing change effectively, and emphasizing the necessity for well out planning can help mitigate productivity challenges and improve overall organizational performance.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 × 4 =

Scroll to Top