How to tell when an employee is challenged or overworked

It has been said there is a thin line between love and hate; and so it is with work assignments. The line between an employee who feels challenged by them and one who feels overworked by them can be thin.

Unfortunately for leaders, the signs are not always obvious. In fact, they can be counter-intuitive. One example from my own work history is illustrative.

After three years in the labor law department of a major utility, I accepted a cross-training assignment in human resources.

During this assignment I was given two special projects. During one project I worked an average of 13-14 hours a day. There were nights when I was still in my office when the custodial crew took their 11 p.m. break.

In the other project I was the labor counsel to the company’s CEO during town hall meetings. My job was to respond to any inquiries that pertained to bargaining issues or current negotiations.

Even though it was less strenuous, it was the second assignment which caused me to feel overworked. It took time away from the first assignment (which was challenging because it engaged my passion for start-up work and enhanced my skills); with an already busy plate, the hours added to my day as a result of the “easy” assignment pushed me to my limits.

The lesson? Hard work and long hours do not necessarily produce an overworked employee (though let me quickly add I am not advocating 13-hour days as standard operating procedure).

Know the individual

A good way to know when an assignment will challenge an employee or push him over the proverbial edge is to know his individual temperament and preferences.

For example, what challenges Jose may cause Asia to feel overworked. Jose, the people-oriented supervisor in your group, may be energized by being asked to show a newly hired employee the ropes while Asia, the goal-oriented supervisor in your group, may view such an assignment as an unwanted addition to her “to do” list.

Although there is no standard approach to determining when an employee is being challenged there are some generally applicable signs that can indicate when the line between “I’m being challenged” and “I’m being overworked” has been crossed. Three of those signs:

When an employee is no longer passionate about her work. “I can hardly wait to see the results of my hard work” turns into “I’m working way too hard.” When we are passionate about our work, even long hours and difficult tasks can be a challenge. When we are overworked, long hours and difficult tasks just means harder work and more of it.

When an employee is no longer growing in the job. “Guess, what I learned today” turns into “You’ll never guess what else happened today.” When we are developing our skills, even the unexpected can be a challenge. When we are overworked, the unexpected is demoralizing.

When an employee is no longer motivated to increase their value to the organization.This assignment is a stepping stone to success” turns into “This assignment is just another rock on the pile.” When we are motivated to increase our value, even taking on additional work can be a challenge. When we are overworked, additional work is only that, additional work.
Work that engages

As leaders, let’s take on the assignment of creating a challenged work force by providing employees with work that engages their passions, enhances their skills, and increases their value. Hopefully, it’s an assignment that does not cross our own thin line between feeling challenged and feeling overworked.

Greg Wallace is the founder of The Wallace Group. Visit