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Causes of Overwork: Unreasonable Expectations

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If you’re working too hard, putting in too many hours and not getting enough sleep, there is certainly a culprit. In fact, overwork is caused by at least one of exactly three reasons.

Here’s the list of workplace issues that lead to frustration, exhaustion and collapse:

  1. Unreasonable expectations – You are asked to do things which are just not possible.
  2. Unnecessary interruptions – You are being bugged by people for things that just aren’t worth breaking your concentration.
  3. Inadequate skill – you don’t have the training or ability to do assigned tasks.

In this three-part series, we’ll cover these factors in detail. Today, what are “expectations”, and why is the modifier “unreasonable” the ultimate destroyer of workplace productivity?

The word “expectations” is at the core of this problem. We used to think of our jobs as a set of duties. Do the work according to the process set forth by management, and your role continues. Fail to do the work, and you lose your job. Our careers were a series of tasks, and were measured by how well we performed those tasks.

Somewhere in the 1970s and 1980s, however, the corporate world began to started to replace words like “tasks” with words like “expectations.” This coincided with an renewed emphases on outcomes and total cost of ownership. By “setting expectations” instead of “assigning tasks”, management is in effect saying: “we only care about results.” Fail to meet expectations, and your boss will get angry.

employee productivity low from not meeting expectations

© Flickr user joshjanssen

Unfortunately, there’s a clear problem with using outcomes as a way to specify work—expectations can become impossible to meet.

To change expectations from possible into impossible, we just have to adjust parameters such as time frame and quality. Compare:

Read this book in the next six months vs. Read this book in the next six minutes.

Find and correct as many errors as you can vs. Find and correct every last error, period.

Arrive at work on time, or call in sick vs. Never arrive late or miss work.

The problem, naturally, is further compounded when employees have many different simultaneous responsibilities or managers.

If you feel you’re being burdened by unreasonable expectations, what is really happening is that you are being asked for outcomes which are physically impossible. The solution is to push back and ask for process-oriented guidance. Try these phrases:

That’s an aggressive deadline. Can we work together to identify the necessary steps we will need to take to meet it?

I have other priorities, but this may take precedence. Can we look at my current workload to decide the right order to complete tasks?

I’m happy to look for any weaknesses in the proposal. Can we develop a model for ensuring that this analysis is as comprehensive as it needs to be?

Of course, pushing back is easier said than done from the employee’s point of view. If management hasn’t established a culture where employees can question timelines, workloads and other expectations, employees can feel stuck under the weight of unrealistic expectations. Even so, it’s incumbent upon the employee to speak up. If you’re being asked to produce unreasonable results or results in an unreasonable time frame, the time to speak up is before the project is due, not after. If you agree to undertake the project under unreasonable expectations, then you’re on the hook for whatever results, including feeling overworked, might come your way.

Unreasonable expectations are one of the greatest causes of overwork. Challenge outcomes and focus on processes. Support the sequence of work, not just the result. Learn more by contacting our business process implementation experts today!

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@lorraineball First probably depends on the business. But second is likely training, especially with regard to sales. - 1 month ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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