A reader who manages a shrinking team asks how much extra work the remaining workers can possibly do, in the July 14, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

over-workedMy boss just laid off five members of the team I manage and directed that we pick up the slack. So we’ve each been doing multiple jobs. At first it seemed like a challenge and everybody got to it, but now it’s killing me and my team. We all want to prove we’re worth keeping in this grim economy, but we are working over 60 hours a week, some of us including Saturdays. Our “normal” was around 45 hours, maybe 50 when there was a crunch. I need minimum two new staff to stay on top of the work, plus new software and tools. I’m afraid some of my employees will get sick, and others will get fed up and quit (me included). There’s only so much people will take. What do you advise?

Nick’s Reply

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” Robert Browning famously wrote. I don’t know whether he had met Elizabeth Barrett yet, or he might have said “peoples’ reach,” but you get the point.

We’re all capable of doing more, and challenges test us and often make us better. But Browning never suggested falling into the abyss by reaching too far.

There is no easy, certain or risk-free solution to your problem — especially as the job market spirals down as a result of the pandemic. But tolerating unreasonable work demands is no solution, either. It’s worth discussing options. I’m going to present one, and ask readers to propose others so we can talk about them.

Over-worked

Your boss seems motivated to find out what your limit is. A good boss who tests you will closely monitor your health and manage accordingly. A lousy boss will keep piling on the work and kill you softly and slowly. You should ask yourselves what kind of boss you have.

More important to me is how you manage your boss. My advice is to tell your boss the truth. I know that’s risky, but part of your job as a manager is to speak up. You’re expected to get the work done, but keeping your own team members healthy is also your job. As you note, losing more of your team because they are over-worked is another risk — to the company.

Over-worked and candid

Insecurity can lead an employee — including a manager like you — to interpret unreasonable demands to work longer and harder as a threat: “Do or die!” An insecure manager won’t dare to confront the boss candidly for fear of getting fired. Does your boss want to hear the truth from you? Or does your boss not care? Getting the answer requires a frank conversation. Then you need to present your boss with a realistic and honest choice.

One approach is to say yes to your boss’s extreme expectations, and to qualify it with “but…” Yes, but.

How to say it
“I’d like to give you an update on our productivity. Since the layoff, the new requirement for the smaller team is to add A and B to our deliverables without increasing company headcount. I’ve outlined a plan. Please have a look. As you can see, YES, we can deliver A and B. BUT, to deliver one or the other, we need to transfer one more company employee to our team. To deliver both A and B, we need to transfer two more employees to our team, and we need some new tools. In either case, we can keep up this level of performance for about six months. Then, as you can see in my projections, the stress on the system and my team will adversely affect product quality and delivery schedules. I know this is not what you’d like to hear — it would be great if we could do A and B with current resources, but it puts the rest of our operation at risk. Can we discuss the trade-offs, what is the best choice, and what is a realistic business plan and delivery schedule?” (A related approach works when negotiating salary.)

Of course, you will have to think through your own plan in your circumstances. But this is part of your job. The company is trying to do more with less, when what it needs to do is decide what its priorities are and choose what has to go.

Risk my job?

I know some will suggest that, in the current economy and job market, no one can afford to risk their job by questioning increased work loads or unreasonable employer demands. Everyone must set their own tolerance level. But everyone has a breaking point. It’s important to know in advance where you’ll draw the line.

The cost of consent

If you avoid the discussion with your boss, and are fearful of appearing uncooperative or even incapable, you’re likely to dig the hole even deeper. When you’re already over-worked, quiet compliance just makes the boss think you can do even more. So the weight on your back will likely be increased. There is no good outcome for you. That’s poor management and poor business.

Where I’ve seen this happen in particular, even in good economies, is with managers who are insecure because they lack a college degree, or they are insecure about their skills and judgment. (See impostor syndrome.) They consent to staggering workloads to avoid appearing somehow unqualified, or to avoid calling attention to themselves. All of them almost invariably burn out or take it so far that they get fired.

Yes, BUT

It’s your job to do the best you can so your company will succeed, and sometimes that means working harder and longer in a crunch. But don’t make it your goal to prove you can do whatever is demanded, that you can figure anything out, and that you can be counted on no matter what. That’s the path to catastrophe because you will lose your job soon anyway — perhaps after you become very sick. The only outcome is doom.

Our reach should exceed our grasp, but not kill us. Never over-promise just to “prove” yourself. Part of what you’re paid for is to tell your boss the truth, even if it’s bad news, as long as your assessment includes proposing rational, prudent choices to protect the business and the employees that make it successful. Don’t say “Can do!” to what can’t be reasonably done. Say YES, BUT — and outline the options and their costs. Otherwise, you’ll either go out on unemployment, or get carried out on a stretcher.

There is no easy answer to this problem. So let’s talk about the hard but honest answers. When the chips are down and your company asks the world of you, how much should you deliver, and under what kind of deal? How would you explain it to your boss? Would you even try? What risks would you face? Are there any benefits?

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16 Comments
  1. ““A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” Robert Browning famously wrote. I don’t know whether he had met Elizabeth Barrett yet, or he might have said “peoples’ reach,” but you get the point.”

    Our prime minister likes the term ‘peoplekind”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uln6ULsPQno

  2. First, there is a paper republished in an IEEE management journal which shows that after about 50 hours of work people start to make mistakes. Go for 60 and you are making so many mistakes that correcting them puts you back to 40 hours of effective work. If you are getting paid for the overtime – and I bet the writer isn’t – it makes it even worse.
    Sorry, no matter how much management wants us to be, we are neither Superman nor Superwoman.

    While Nick’s suggestion is good, I think the answer would be that all the other teams are overworked also, so it is unfair to try to get resources from them. I would put it this way.

    “I don’t think my team given the layoffs, can do both project A and project B on the schedule which was defined for a full team. We can be late on both, but it would be better if you give me what your priority is, so that we can get the most important project done on time.”
    That one the boss has to answer.
    I’ve done that for my bosses, and I always encourage my team to tell me that, since sometimes you forget the load of work they have when a new project comes along. It was my job to tell them what job not to do in order to get the important ones completed.

    • @Scott: That’s a better alternative to my suggestion. I think I was trying too hard to sugar-coat my “candid” explanation to the boss to make it more palatable. You’re indeed right: why assume any other team has personnel to spare?

  3. 1. I agree with Nick and Scott. You do have to have ONE honest talk with your boss to give him a fair chance of making the situation better. If he does not, there is literally nothing else you can do. If he does not make the situation better, I would reduce my hours to 45 hours per week and not one minute more.

    2. Start looking for another job and in fact, take time off to go on interviews. Don’t discuss it but don’t cover it up too hard either. The boss will see that you are creating options for yourself.

    3. I worked on a team of less than 10 people. I had to do 6.5 hours of overtime to earn my “bonus”. One person was very young and had a stroke. One person miscarried. One person had a heart attack. That kind of overtime will make you very sick and may even kill you. Quit.

    • @Bob: I wonder what would happen in the OP’s department if employees logged off after 45 hours and went dark (as is “went home” and could not be reached)? I wonder what grounds, if any, the company could cite for formally reprimanding or terminating them? Of course, in an at-will state the company could just terminate them for no stated reason — and I guess that’s what would happen. But wouldn’t such terminations create a bad rep for the employer?

      This is why Bernie Dietz’s article about employment contracts must be taken seriously, even if companies reject the suggestion. We need to start somewhere.

      https://www.asktheheadhunter.com/14762/employment-contracts

      • I’m not an employment lawyer but I’ll try to answer your question, Nick. I think as an employee-at-will, the company can just fire you. However most companies now just lay you off because then you can collect unemployment and the company isn’t open to a charge of a law suit. (They laid you off, they COULD take you back, you know – even though they won’t. And you can’t sue them because this lay off biz is “temporary” so they didn’t discriminate). Anyway that’s the justification for laying off vs. firing.

        In any case, getting back to your question. I don’t think the company has any grounds at all for complaining. The employee is working 8-9 hours a day.

        I think the trick here is to talk to the manager, give the manager a well thought out plan to accomplish some of the goals requested. (Ask the manager for a priority list, think through in advance what deadlines you can meet). Give this manager one well thought out conversation that tries to give some benefit to the manager and also an agreement not to work to death. Like I said make this conversation an honest one, and the person’s best shot. If the manager can’t accommodate the plan, can’t modify his, or agrees to the plan but doesn’t implement it, that the employee’s answer. Don’t go back to that well again. It’s dry.

        But one of the items I’d put into this honest attempt to talk to the manager, is that the work takes up a normal day, and that’s it. If the employee and the manager can recognize that burning people out is going to increase costs, mistakes and deadlines, then it is impossible to do the work agreed upon.

        If the manager can’t agree to a normal day, do the normal day anyway.

        I know I’m painting the manager as being unreasonable here, any that is probably unfair. The manager is probably under a lot of pressure to squeeze more out of all the employees and to “do more with less”. But the manager has to get some backbone too and realize that if doing more with less is a mantra, that means that all the detrimental effects are happening to him personally too. The employee might be able to lead the manager to that realization.

        Right now I’m working for a tiny startup and we may run out of money soon. I said, at our very small staff meeting, that I wanted notice of when we were really out of cash. I didn’t want to be surprised. The CEO agreed saying he wasn’t going to get much out of us the last two weeks anyway, so he’d tell us when we were two weeks away and pay us out that money. It was a recognition of the reality of the uncertainty of our situation, and a graceful way to assure we would work for our pay, but we would be informed at all times.

        I also misstated my story above, I had to work 6.5 hours of overtime for every hour of “bonus” pay. 6.5 hours on top of my basic 45 hour work-week for every one hour of bonus pay. Don’t burn yourself out. Being unemployed and in poor health and unable to afford healthcare, if this would occur, will set you back for years. It isn’t worth it. Quit and stay healthy.

  4. The more guff you put up with, the more it will get dished to you. Figure out where your line in the sand is, draw it, and stick to it.

    It’s one thing to be helpful and cooperative, and quite another to be a doormat.

    • @Askeladd: You just re-wrote my article completely. Nice job! :-)

  5. If this was a governmental agency that had just gotten its budget cut, its leaders would first excise services at the biggest pain point, passing the pain up the ladder or out to constituents rather than bravely ingesting them and keeping a stiff upper lip. Just an observation, not a recommendation.

    If five people were laid off, the boss and those higher up have resource constraints. What course of action would you take if the company was unable to fund the return of even one or two until a year from now?

    If that turns out to be the case, is this a sign that the company can’t really afford to be in business and is counting on concessions from employees and suppliers? What would you anticipate the boss’s plan to be if members of your team jump ship?

    What you have at the moment is a variation of the prisoner’s dilemma. Everything is miserable but familiar as long as everyone suffers together, but as soon as one person jumps for a better situation, the situation is no longer tenable.

  6. When I was in the military, I encountered two kinds of officers and NCOs – and there are only two kinds.

    2. Those who believe their rank is to serve their personal interests and anyone of lower rank should act accordingly.

    1. Those who recognize that they were given rank to serve the goals of the military, including, most importantly, protecting their troops from Type 2 officers and NCOs.

    Once I entered civilian work, I found that there were, in fact, only two kinds of managers. The exact same kinds.

    If the manager of the OP is not doing her/his part to protect all those of lower rank, then she/he is a type 2, no matter what excuses she/he makes about those even higher up the totem pole putting pressure on her/him.

    The FIRST job of someone called “manager” or “leader” is to provide the work environment so that those they manage/lead can do their best work – no matter what. Any person who acts otherwise may have those titles, but they aren’t doing the job.

  7. I agree with Nick and the others who stated that the OP should/must have a conversation with his boss. But he should do his homework first–look at the projects that need to be done, come up with statistics–how long it takes to do those tasks, who else is involved (other depts., for example), and deadlines.

    Then the OP does what Nick suggests, says “yes, but”, and lays out what it will take to get the work done. Hopefully, the boss is reasonable and will see that other tasks need to be removed from the OP and his team’s to-do list. If the boss says nothing, ASK the boss to prioritize tasks, or even ask the boss to remove other tasks so the higher priority jobs can get done.

    But if the boss isn’t reasonable, or doesn’t care, and thinks magic faeries will do the work (2 people doing the work of 5), then it is time to start looking for a new job. OP will get burned out, as will the remaining employees who report to him. As the manager of his team, it is his job to go to bat for his underlings.

    I hope things work out for him. Here’s an older ATH post that is useful: https://www.asktheheadhunter.com/3639/how-do-i-tell-my-boss-im-overworked

  8. Show me metrics & I’ll show you behavior. A couple of things upper management is metric’d on..their fiscal bottom line & making timely deliveries….related performance about same, drive their bonus algorithms. Usually this scenario fuels short sighted unrealistic goals as to productivity & schedules. Hold that thought.

    There’s some unknowns about the writer’s situation…the industry, is the whole company cutting back…or just his boss trying to be a fiscal hero? If the former, as Scott pointed out you’re not going to get help from elsewhere in the company…if the latter, you might have a chance. But usually it’s the former. This is the worse case, because if your boss will try to help, he/she must escalate and plea for help from above, from those who imposed the downsizing..In so doing, this is usually viewed as inviting a flogging or as Nick pointed out inviting the label of weak, inept management..messenger of bad news etc..and receiving a message that “real managers get the job done without bothering me.

    As noted…sorry, you MUST go to your boss. Having your team’s back is the most important part of a manager’s job. The sooner done the better. Delays make the problem rapidly worse and playing catch up is more far more stressful, time consuming than your present scenario.

    But keep in mind the old saying. “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” Now recall the aforementioned metrics. If you want upper management to really take note and do something you’ll need to threaten some pain. bonus pain. The word NO comes to mind. You have a simple message.. With my current headcount and tool box, NO, you’re not getting what you want when you wanted. I feel your pain.

    So you rework the plan and offer the boss well thought out alternatives

    When overworked, with no relief in sight you must…prioritize & reschedule. Citing A & B projects is good for the sake of discussion as they can stand for the 2 closest to delivery & most important, but there’s usually more.

    Take ownership of a solution. Offer plans/scenarios using your own prioritization, offering choices based on your understanding of importance. Don’t ask the boss for priorities. You should know them. Your plan will serve to validate them. If the boss doesn’t like your prioritization, he/she can change them.

    I was in the hi-tech world. And the writer’s quandary was almost business as usual.and no consolation the hours were much longer. So I’ll use that experience as my reference.

    As Manager, define tolerable working conditions for you & your team that will be the foundation for your plans. Tolerable means you/team recognize it’s not business as usual. And that means getting done what needs to be done. working hard to a point, beyond which is counterproductive. Then define that point. X hours a week, inclusive of necessary weekend work. Engaging stress relief creativity…working from home, alternating mere mortal work weeks across the team.. AND those tools you need.

    You offer solutions based on the above..and incorporate trade offs of content and schedules. Given A as most important I can offer you plan 1A. throw everything at A, by trading off B’s schedule..slip it out. Or Plan 1B, Hold A & Bs schedules but strip out content in A & B…or improv combinations of those. Do your homework and confer with trusted Marketing and Sales people as to their tolerances for changes in content and schedules. that is, get as much buy in as you can for what you’re going to propose. Sorry, all these plans will cause some executive pain…because they say…you’re not getting all you want..but you can ease the pain.

    OK, you’re not done. Next is the other aspect..resources. You lost 5 people. And think restoring 2 or preferably 3 will give you the capability to meet the original goals as to content & schedule. (I took note that your powers to be don’t seem to be totally off. You lost 5 but can work with 3..saying 2 were more than needed). Let’s assume again it’s worse case. Company wide cuts, possibly hiring freeze. Asking for more people is an obvious fix, but let’s say it’s a cold day in Hades that you’re boss will crawl upward and ask for them. Let’s say you empathize with that & don’t want to ask your boss to ask.

    In my world, companies managed costs by headcount, as it was the biggest expense. What you can do with your team’s help, is take a good reading on what kind of work is sucking up everyone’s time. For example in my world we wanted engineers to be doing engineering. Each to their capability or better. Jr Engineers stepping up to take on Sr Engineering work is a great thing. The opposite is not. that’s under utilization of skills. For example, in one place I worked uppermanagement balked at providing admin support. So we’d have engineer spending hours at copying machines or chasing down equipment orders to resulting in loss of engineering time, and breaking continuity or contributing to burn out.
    So smoke out where your team’s skills/productivity is being diluted with work that could be done by others.
    Now turn to the gig community and get costs of contractors who could do the tasks you want to offload from your core team. In the bean counting world, that’s an expense, they aren’t people. They aren’t headcount. This is your sweetener. The aforementioned plans carry pain. So you can offer one more alternative plan. This is how I can give you everything you want..including decent working lives, without raising headcount. It’s just money. I know this works.

    These aren’t hypothetical suggestions. Seen it done a # of times, in some tough business lock downs by companies who are tight assed anyway in normal times.

    Some other considerations. You said 2, preferably 3. Ask for 3. Keep the 2 to yourself, it’s your fallback. Don’t feel guilty about playing games. I can assure your management is also playing the “stretch goal” game. e.g. we MUST have it out the door by June 30. The game is, August is fine, but if I tell them June….. Marketing says we MUST have all these features…that would be nice…but not necessary. When you talk to Marketing, look for sweeteners. A few features you can add if you get those contractors..So you can sweeten the pitch..to I can add this in.

    The writer’s question suggests he/she never played this game before or done this kind of planning. It’s a LOT of work. and said work takes time from your current work (you sound like a working manager). Suck it up and this is worth the extra hours. It can have a good ROI for you & your team. If they are so inclined, roll some of them in to help & in so doing make it a team plan

    You’ll only look very managerial & professional to your bosses. Try to control job insecurity. Whatever you’re doing, it’s needed or your whole project/department would have been shot. They need YOU & your team. Your loss will be very painful. As Nick & And as someone noted, if you say nothing and slog through it, you get to repeat endlessly until you say NO.

    You should be thinking of your next job. Everything you do to put a plan together will serve double duty to prepare you to define your value, network build, prepare your resume, cover letters and interview. Even if you find yourself talking to your hand…you’ll gain from it.

    You didn’t mention what you thought of your boss. so let’s assume a good one. This planning demonstrates you have his/her back, you are not BSing him, you are doing everything you can to minimize their risks & pain and position them to make good decisions…and if they must escalate..make him look good. And who knows, they may be able to engage their network and budget to move everyone along in a positive direction.

    Good luck

  9. Time, price, quality. You only get to pick 2.

    Pre-prioritize a list with all the projects, alternatives and dates. Review the list with your manager to determine which projects to work on first. Re-review progress and priority regularly in a scheduled meeting with the manager, to make sure the alignment continues. Things change and new fires will come along. And stick to the 8.5 hour day.

  10. @Jim: Pre-prioritize saves time and trouble (and jobs?) later. And reviewing with your boss regularly does, too. Good points!

  11. Nick,

    The “yes, but ….” approach is a very engineer way to reply to a statement. I believe it comes from being trained to design-out potential failures/issues. I work in an engineering center and picked up on this a few years ago, but still catch myself doing it on more occasions than I am proud to admit. Tina Fey’s Second Rule of Improv is ‘“Yes” Isn’t Enough, You Must “Yes, and…”,’ which is to say that you must add to the conversation to keep it moving forward. I have observed many managers (and a Director or two) stop listening when they hear “but”. To be a good leader (Note: leadership isn’t a title; it is a way of life), we must realize the importance of moving the discussion forward. If we use “Yes, and we want to accomplish x, y, and z. How do we want to prioritize these goals/projects to the greatest benefit of our company? I would suggest z, x, y; for the following reasons ….”, we will have greater success in companies with a future.

    BTW, if the manager’s reply is “They are all #1 priorities!” or something similar, we need to realize that the company is in a doom spiral, doesn’t have a future, and we must invoke the “Don’t be the last rat off the ship” mindset.

    • @Mike W: You’re right. “Yes, and…” is a better approach. But it is needlessly negative, while and is more likely to keep the discussion going. As you note, if the manager is going to tell you that all priorities are #1, it won’t really matter. It’s time to go.

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