Using the Pull Principle to Prevent Employee Burnout

Using the Pull Principle to Prevent Employee Burnout

Stress in the workplace is a very real and trying issue in today’s world. The pressures of meeting customer demands, meeting financial targets and managing all of the myriad responsibilities that come with any position are pushing some employees over the edge. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates the costs of employee stress come in at nearly $300 billion annually, taking into account absenteeism, lost productivity, turnover, accidents, insurance and worker’s compensation claims, as well as the costs associated with lawsuits that may result from burned-out or overworked employees. One would think that with the costs of employee stress and burnout being so high,organizations would find ways to reduce employee workload or institute efficiencies to ensure everyone can be at their best every day, but sadly the opposite is often true. In spite of overwhelming evidence that overworked, stressed employees are not productive or happy employees, many strapped employers continue to use the same processes and procedures.

However, in response to the growing problem of employee burnout, several schools of thought have looked for ways to more efficiently manage workloads and resources, creating systems that maximize employee potential while simultaneously increasing productivity and lowering costs. Management approaches such as Six Sigma, LEAN, Scrum and Agile Project Management each have their own methods of managing projects and workloads, and while they differ in their specific methodology, they have one thing in common: When used appropriately, these systems prevent employee burnout.

One principle found in Scrum and Agile Project Management is especially useful when trying to manage projects and prevent employee burnout. The pull principle, which is based on the notion that workers should only do what needs to be done to meet current demand, is applicable across all industries and an important component of any web based project management software application.

Overworked and Overwhelmed — or Productive and Pleasant?

Consider the typical working environment: An employee works in a department and has a specific assignment load. Perhaps each employee is assigned to work on a specific client base, or handle a specific task. As work comes in, each employee finishes his or her part of the project and moves on to the next task, letting other departments or co-workers handle their part.

But problems arise when, as is often the natural course of projects, several pieces that are handled by one person are in progress at once.Perhaps it’s a question of experience, or perhaps that person is tapped by a manager because he or she has a lower workload than others. In either case, as that person struggles to keep up with the many demands on their time, other employees may be left looking for things to do. The worker with many projects flounders under the pressure, and burnout happens quickly; projects are back-burnered, delayed or done incorrectly, leading to lost time and money.

Under the pull principle, the workflow changes to a more equitable, and efficient process. Instead of a manager assigning projects to employees, employees have the opportunity to choose tasks related to the project based on their availability and ability to get the work done. They choose tasks to complete as they go according to established priorities, ensuring that their workload is never more than they can reasonably expect to handle and that important tasks are completed on time.

Beyond Workflow

Consider the pull principle of workflow as similar to watching television. First let’s look at the opposite: pushing. When you turn on the TV and simply channel surf, flipping through and mindlessly looking for something to watch, that could be considered pushing: You have too many options and may get overwhelmed or end up watching something that you’re not really that into, simply because it’s there.

Under the pull principle, you have a particular program in mind. You go directly to that channel, watch something that you enjoy and finish the program without feeling as if you wasted your time. The pull principle at work is much like that: Not only are you not buried under many tasks that divert your attention from what you really excel at, but you can choose to work on tasks and projects that highlight your full potential. You’re less likely to burn out because not only are you not buried under tasks, you’re doing work that it meaningful and is a true contribution to the project. Feeling satisfied with your work is a key to avoiding burnout and the problems that come with it. Dreading another day at the office and being overwhelmed with your workload can lead to sleep disturbances, depression and emotional problems.

Companies that wish to keep their employees productive and satisfied should consider implementing a project management system that relies on the pull principle to direct workflow. Doing so no only ensures that mental health of your employees, but can also increase productivity and perhaps most importantly, positive results.

About the Author

Colleen McAvoy covers workplace issues for several large publications. A former project manager, she was constantly on the lookout for ways to improve workflow and achieve goals while still effectively managing the flow of tasks and projects.


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