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The Overwhelmed Employee: Simplify the work environment

Global research, October 2014

24/7/365 operations, global connectivity and information overload are all conspiring to create the “overwhelmed employee”. Recent research by Deloitte has identified the need for organisations to simplify the work environment to create more time for thinking and increase productivity.

Read the ABC News story from 04 November 2014, or listen to the podcast recording.

“Information overload and the always connected 24/7 work environment are overwhelming workers, undermining productivity and contributing to low employee engagement”, concluded Deloitte researchers following Deloitte’s annual Global Human Capital Trends 2014 survey.  How was that conclusion reached?  Is it a global issue?  And what are the implications for organisations?  

After canvassing the views of more than 2,500 business and HR leaders in 94 countries, Deloitte researchers found that the overwhelmed employee is a global business concern.  Further, while two-thirds of leaders recognised the imperative to change, almost half said they were “not ready” to deal with it.   Given this context, the researchers make recommendations about where companies can start their change efforts.


The aim of the survey was to investigate the prevalence and impact of the “overwhelmed employee” phenomenon, and to develop recommendations to enable companies to mitigate the trend and support their overwhelmed employees.


In late 2013 Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2014 omnibus survey was sent to 2,532 business and HR leaders in 94 countries. 2,447 respondents answered the questions relating to overwhelmed employees including regarding whether organisations:

1. rate “the overwhelmed employee” as an urgent issue of concern

2. rate themselves ready to respond to “the overwhelmed employee”

3. help employees to manage information and schedules

4. help leaders manage demanding schedules and expectations.


The key findings of the Global Human Capital Trends 2014 survey focused on three areas:

  • The importance of addressing the overwhelmed employee trend
  • Organisational responses to the overwhelmed employee
  • Daily practices to reduce information overload.

Citing background research which found that “people check their mobile devices up to 150 times every day”, the report found that interruptions and  involvement in constant and multiple communication flows (“hyper-connectivity”) are minimising employees’ ability to absorb and process information.  Additionally, as the “the sun never sets on a global company, so someone is always working”, new information is constantly being generated, creating unexpected difficulties with employees being able to access the “right” information.  Lost in a sea of information, 72% of employees say they “cannot find the information they need within their company’s information systems”.  Efficiently sorting through the information deluge, and creating more time to think and produce insights, were the key messages from this research

In the context of hyper-connectivity and information overload, a study cited in the report found that workers spend 41% of their time on things that don’t satisfy them personally and do not help productivity.  Not wishing to take a “victim lens”, the report also noted that employees buy into corporate cultures which view “‘being busy’ as a badge of honour”, confusing success with activity rather than insight, and thus reinforcing the overwhelmed employee cycle

Given this complexity, it is no wonder that the report found that 65% of executives rated “the overwhelmed employee” as an “urgent” or “important” trend.  Moreover, this was an issue for all of the 94 countries surveyed

Notwithstanding the fact that two-thirds of respondents rated the issue as important or urgent, the survey results showed that 57% of respondents believe their organisations are “weak” when it comes to supporting employees with information overload and helping leaders manage their hectic schedules.   Further, almost half (44%) said they do not have the capability to support this issue, i.e. to know how to treat the issue as a “shared problem requiring a company response”

The report concluded that whilst organisations recognise the importance and negative impact of the “overwhelmed employee” issue, capability gaps are preventing organisations from having the ability to implement mitigation strategies. Leaders just don’t know what to do, and paradoxically their own information overload is likely to be impacting the time they have to think creatively about a strategic response

The report identified four types of company strategies that are being implemented to influence communication and working patterns so as to reduce the overwhelmed employee experience, namely

1. the use of smaller, agile teams

2. simplifying HR practices and employee systems

3. outsourcing or insourcing non-core tasks

4. changing work expectations.

  1. Smaller, agile teams:  The report noted research findings by Hackman (a former professor at Harvard University and Yale University), that small teams outperform larger teams. This has stimulated a focus on small team interaction (reducing information flows), and size settings, for example the CEO of Amazon, created a “two pizza” rule. This rule states that all meetings should be small enough that two pizzas can feed everyone in the room.  Additionally the report noted the rise of Agile project methodology which emphasises short bursts of communication (e.g. 15 minute meetings) to reduce the time burden of lengthy meetings
  2. Simplifying HR practices and employee systems: The report identified HR policies and practices to promote workplace flexibility and enable employees to switch off.  Additionally, some companies such as Adobe have eliminated steps in their performance appraisals processes to save time.  Others have focussed on the HR user interface to minimise the number of clicks or swipes an end user has to complete
  3. Outsourcing or insourcing non-core tasks.  Pfizer has developed a program to enable employees to off-load technical and administrative non-core tasks, resulting in scientists spending more time on value adding activities which use their scientific skills
  4. Changing work expectations.  The report noted that companies are experimenting with “email free” time.  One company has curtailed the use of “cc” or “reply all” and earmarked a half a day a week to focus on the company’s leadership initiatives.


The research findings clearly identify global concerns around the overwhelmed employee issue, as well as a lack of concerted effort to address the challenge.  The individual company initiatives highlighted that some initial positive steps are being taken to enable employees to reduce unproductive time and focus on the core tasks of their role, but much more needs to be done.

The report concluded with seven ideas about how companies can start to lead the change:

1. Lead through example, with senior leaders taking the initiative 

2. Get input from employees about frustrating/time wasting work practices

3. Simplify HR and talent programs

4. Simplify information and HR systems

5. Publicise and celebrate flexible work policies

6. Make meetings more productive (focussing on the size of the group and length of the meeting)

7. Delegate decision making.  

The report concluded “companies need to recognise that the overwhelmed, hyper-connected employee is a business concern. The opportunity for business and HR leaders is to find ways to make information easier to find, simplify processes and systems, keep teams small and make sure leaders provide focus”.  Such intervention will help improve engagement, team work and productivity.

To read the full article, see “The overwhelmed employee – Simplify the work environment” Junankar P. N., Paul S., Yasmeen W. (2014) “Global Human Capital Trends 2014 – Engaging the 21st-century workforce” pp. 97-102.

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