“I want to help, but I just have a lot on my plate right now.” “I’m really swamped. Can someone else handle it?” “I can’t believe how busy I’ve been lately.”
Have you heard your employees saying things like this? Employees who complain about workload are common in American culture at all levels, and across all industries. In social contexts, it’s sometimes referred to as “busy bragging,” which some experts have described as a full-on epidemic. Sometimes, these claims are used as a way to get out of accepting new work, and other times, they’re merely used as conversation points. Either way, they could be negatively affecting your business and employee productivity overall.
Ultimately, there are two possibilities here. One, your employee truly is as busy as they say. If that’s the case, this informative feedback is actually a good thing; it helps you accurately gauge and (if necessary) rebalance workload splits between your staff. Two, your employee is lying about how busy they are, or are at least exaggerating. I’ll get into the motivations behind this deceit momentarily, but for now, understand that this exaggeration could harm your business in the following ways:
- Persistent time waste. It should come as no surprise to you that your employees are probably wasting time. A Salary survey from 2014 found that 89 percent of employees claim to waste at least some time at work every day, with 10 percent of responders wasting 3 hours or more every day. Wasted time means wasted money, cutting into your profitability as a business.
- Misallocation of resources. If you believe that one employee on your team is exceptionally busy, and your other employees are not, you’ll allocate resources and tasks accordingly. If employees aren’t accurate in their presentation of busyness, this can lead to improper allocation, and even further waste.
- Cultural influence. One employee’s chronic complaints of being busy could set new standards for busyness in your office. It could drive competitiveness, making other employees exaggerate to appear at least as busy as the original employee, or make the culture more open to negativity and complaints. Both are bad for your company.
But why does this exaggeration phenomenon exist? And more importantly, what can you do when an employee says they are too busy (but you suspect otherwise)? First, let’s try to understand why a person would deliberately lie or exaggerate about the amount of work they’re doing on a regular basis.
Motivations for Exaggerating
There are multiple motivations for doing so, which could be affecting an employee independently, or together to increase the urge to exaggerate:
- Busier people seem more important. You see a man in a suit, dawdling lackadaisically in the park. You see a similar man in a suit, hurriedly walking down the sidewalk while talking on the phone in a rushed manner. Which of these two men is more important? Most people would assume it’s the man in a hurry, because more important people have more things to do.Conversely, that means if you appear to be busier than you actually are, you’ll simultaneously appear to be more important than you actually are. This can be a valuable tool for new employees trying to make a strong first impression, or older employees looking for promotion opportunities.
- Busy people are indispensable. Job insecurity is a growing condition in the United States, and in many cases, is strong enough to influence mental health. This can force people to change how they present themselves, in an effort to appear more necessary and more valuable in their organization.They believe if they prove themselves to be busy, their supervisors and bosses will be less likely to fire them or lay them off; after all, if you’re doing the work of two people, it’s not cost-efficient to hire and train two full-timers to replace you.
- Busy people don’t get new tasks. In a sneakier motivation, it’s possible that your “busy” workers aren’t actually busy at all. They may enjoy wasting time at work on social media, or use their work time to develop their personal blog or hobby.Telling a supervisor that you’re busy usually means you’ll be assigned less work and fewer tasks, making the presentation of busyness invaluable in retaining as much free time as possible.
- The work culture demands being busy. Incrementally, we’ve been increasing the number of hours we work; right now, the average American workweek is 47 hours, not 40. In Western capitalistic culture, we tend to glamorize the people who work hardest; we see work ethic, determination, and drive as moral institutions, and the people who work hardest deserve the most praise and respect.Accordingly, work cultures have steadily evolved to favor the hardest-working people; employees who arrive early and/or stay late are seen as inherently better for the team, sparking a kind of intra-office competition and adding pressure to people to work longer hours. Claiming to be busy is a way to fit into this culture, and possibly even assert dominance in it.
- Busy is a good excuse. Maybe you showed up late to an important meeting. Maybe you forgot to email your part of the project to the team leader. Maybe you showed up to work looking disheveled, like you just woke up. In any of these cases (and countless personal examples), being busy makes for a good excuse.You were late because you got caught up on a client call. You forgot to email your part of the project because you had urgent emails to catch up on. You showed up late for work because you were up late last night catching up on assignments.
- They really believe they’re busy. Finally, it could be that your employees are exaggerating how busy they are with no conscious desire to do so. They may genuinely believe they’re as busy as they claim to be—even if the numbers don’t agree with them.
Are We Really as Busy as We Say We Are?
Obviously, regardless of the motivation for the exaggeration, you’ll want to track down who’s exaggerating and make it stop. There are two ways to look at the problem.
First is the macro level, where you’ll examine broad trends to see how busy your employees truly are. Second is the micro level, where you’ll use email analytics and other tools to precisely measure how much time your employees are spending actually working. So what does the macro-level data say about us as workers in society? Are we really working as much as we think we are (or say we are)?
Researchers like Brigid Schlute would say, undoubtedly, the answer is no. The average number of hours worked per week has increased, but much of the problem with busyness is how we think about and describe our busyness. The past few decades have seen sharp increases in word choices like “hectic,” “consumed,” and “on the run,” and our ability to multitask and switch between realms of our lives have increased due to the prevalence of technology. Accordingly, our perception of how busy we “truly” are has become biased in the favor of “busy.”
The American Time Use Survey demonstrates this to be true, as even the most perceived busy people aren’t as busy as we (or they) imagine. For example, those making $100,000 a year or more spent more time surfing the web than those making less, and working parents only had one less hour of leisure time per day than non-parents.
Perceptions aside, there’s no question that employees are wasting significant time while at work—putting those 47 average working hours under a microscope. Data pooled from human resource departments pins the true amount of time waste per day somewhere between 0.90 and 1.60 hours. Approximately 14.7 percent of this time waste is due to distractions, which are somewhat unpreventable in an office environment, and another 23.4 percent is semi-malicious, attributed to employees feeling underpaid for their jobs.
But the real kicker is the 33.2 percent of time waste, which is attributable to simply not having enough work to do. In addition to simply believing we’re busier than we actually are, and wasting time because we have nothing better to do, we also may be artificially making ourselves busier than we have to be.
The big culprit here is email: according to Atlassian, we check our email about 36 times an hour, and after fielding email, it can take up to 16 minutes to refocus on a task. So while you’re incessantly checking your email throughout the day and spending hours polishing your messages to perfection, you may actually be adding needless time to your workday. This type of work is a gray area; employees clearly believe they’re doing something constructive with their time, but they aren’t, and that needs to be addressed.
In summary, most employees are wasting time, whether they realize it or not. If they claim to be busy, they’re most likely exaggerating, but for three very different reasons:
- They misjudge how much time they’re actually working.
- They spend too much time working unproductively.
- They consciously “waste” time with distractions.
Detecting the Problem
Now, we better understand the problem of employee time waste, busy bragging, and the discrepancy between time worked and time claimed. We know that most workers who claim to be busy are either lying or exaggerating, but what can we do to investigate this at the micro level? How can you tell how much time an employee is truly spending, compared to how much they claim to spend? Problems With Traditional Approaches Most HR departments immediately look to performance reviews and similar traditional approaches, but these are fundamentally flawed in a few ways.
For starters, performance reviews tend to be annual, and focus only on one person’s perspective (a supervisor’s). This sharply limits the number of work factors that can be discussed. Performance reviews also tend to focus on subjective indicators of performance, such as how busy an employee appears, their demeanor, and how they present their work; claiming to be busy may affect supervisor opinions of that employee, regardless of how much work they actually do on a daily basis.
Egalitarian workload distribution can also be problematic; assigning all your team members the same amount of work is almost impossible. Similar tasks may require much different amounts of time to complete, and different employees have different strengths, weaknesses, and complications to contend with throughout their completion of those tasks. Instead, it’s better to look at the objective data, on a regular basis, to get an accurate perception of each employee’s busyness.
The first and probably most intuitive way to do this is through productivity tracking, also often referred to as time tracking. There are many employee productivity tracking software tools available, some of which are directly embedded into project management apps, but most of them have a few features in common:
- Stop/start tracking. Employees will have the ability to “start” and “stop” a timer on virtually any device they have. This time will be automatically logged based on a handful of pre-set parameters, enabling them to keep tabs of how long they spend on individual tasks and broader projects alike.
- Manual entry. In addition to starting and stopping time, employees can add manual entries about time they spent on offline work.
- Ties to categories. Most time will be categorized based on the nature of the task, the client it’s related to, and whether it’s related to a bigger, high-level project.
- Long-term reporting. Managers and supervisors will be able to log in and view data, on an individual level and in terms of broader trends throughout the organization. This is key for understanding how your employees are spending their times, in groups and as individuals.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each individual app, but almost every app can be lumped into this general category.
Overall, time tracking can help you and your employees accurately judge how long it takes to complete certain tasks, and this is effective for everyone’s productivity. You may learn that a certain data entry task, for example, only takes 30 minutes on average, or that one employee can handle reporting twice as fast as another.
Time tracking, therefore, helps you solve two of the three main problems with “busy” employees. You’ll start to correct any biases that your employees have with regard to how much time they’re actually spending. You’ll also start to close in on tasks that take longer than they should, and unproductive forms of work that employees are partaking in.
Time tracking does come with its share of problems, however, and shouldn’t be used as an exclusive means of solving the busyness problem:
- Employee honesty. One critical problem here is that the time controlling mechanisms are in the hands of your employees. For the most part, your employees may be relatively dutiful; they’ll start and stop time appropriately for given tasks, and you’ll end up with accurate projections of how much time they spend.However, if your employees are inclined to lie or exaggerate about how much time they spend, they’ll be able to fraudulently track their time.
- Untracked time. There’s no way for you to track every minute of your employees’ days. Sometimes, there will be tasks that can’t be easily tracked on an app, such as driving to a client’s location. Other times, there will be small periods of time that simply aren’t worth tracking, or which might take away from the “main events.”For example, your employees won’t be tracking the time it takes for them to walk to and from the break room for lunch. They won’t be tracking the few minutes it takes for them to read a text message on their phone. These may seem insignificant, but they can add up quickly.
- Time tracking time. Don’t forget that the process of checking in and checking out of time tracking apps in itself takes time; and there’s no way to effectively track the time you spend time tracking. If the app is difficult to use or manage, it could add several minutes to an hour to each of your employees’ days, negating any time savings you might have experienced in the process.
As we’ve seen, email is one of the biggest sources of work, and an area responsible for vast discrepancies between workers’ productivities. If you doubt how much of an influencing factor email is on your workday, take a look at the Washington Post’s email time calculator, and you’ll see a quick snapshot of how much time you really spend. Email analytics, more so than basic time tracking, can help you form an accurate picture of how much time your employees are spending, for a variety of reasons:
- Email is objective. Email is timestamped. It’s semi-permanent. It’s readable and traceable. In effect, email is entirely objective.
- Email is hard to fake. What’s more, email is hard to fake. Anyone can start a timer and leave it running as they play a mobile game and relax for an hour, but it’s much harder to feign a productive conversation with a client. Accordingly, email can be a more reliable gauge of employee time and effort than simple time tracking.
- Everything ties to email. Though email isn’t the only responsibility your employees will be managing, almost every responsibility they do have will tie back to email in some way, whether that’s through assignment, delegation, conversation, updates, or actual “work.”
And most importantly, there are dozens of dimensions to consider when reviewing email analytics:
- Emails sent and received. As an entry-level gauge for how much work your employees are doing, you can measure the number of emails sent and received. This alone can’t give you the full picture; after all, an email with the word “okay” shouldn’t carry as much value as a three-paragraph email describing a potential fix to a problem.Still, long and short emails tend to average each other out, and eventually, you’ll be left with a “total” value that will help you understand which of your employees are occupied more than the others. For example, if most of your employees send and receive several hundred emails a day, and another of your employees on the same team sends and receives 40, you know there’s a discrepancy.Obviously, you’ll need to make some accommodations for different roles and responsibility levels, but the general trend will be apparent.
- Senders and recipients. You’ll also want to pay attention to who’s doing the sending and receiving. The numbers in the “sent and received” category may be skewed by one-sided conversations; for example, one of your employee’s numbers could be inflated because they’re CC’d on several running conversations, despite the fact that they rarely contribute.Similarly, you can look at intended recipients to evaluate how email is being used by each employee. Ordinarily, you’ll see a diverse range of different recipients, but if you notice an employee seems to be sending lots of emails to personal contacts, you’ll know they’re spending a disproportionate amount of time on non-work-related activities.You can also use this information to narrow down sources that may be a disproportionate source of your employees’ time, such as a problematic client that demands excessive attention.
- Email timing. There’s a general ebb and flow to email communication on a broad scale, with Tuesday and Thursday having the highest email volume and lower rates around the noon hour, when many people go to lunch. But beyond that, you can look at email timing throughout the day and throughout the week to detect any abnormalities associated with certain workers.For example, you may notice that one worker seems to do a lot of emailing at the beginning of the day, but by mid-afternoon, the emails stop; this could be an indication that they’ve run out of work to do, or that they’re spending the latter half of their day on different types of activities. You’ll need to do some further investigating using EmailAnalytics to find out.
- Conversation statistics. It’s also worth taking a look at email productivity statistics as they relate to conversations. How long is the average conversation thread for a given employee? Do they tend to require lots of back-and-forth messages, or do they usually handle things in the span of one or two messages?If their conversations appear much longer than average, it could be a sign that they’re spending their time on email inefficiently, communicating incomplete information or otherwise sending more emails than they need to.You can also examine conversations to see how much an employee is participating in conversations that involve them; on one hand, this can tell you that an employee is not actively involved in discussion, but it can also tell you that your group of employees is doing a poor job of selecting the most relevant people to include in the thread.
- Time reading. Two people can spend vastly different amounts of time reading the same email. One person might scan the email quickly, get the gist of what needs to happen, and act as quickly as possible. Another might take their time reading the email, getting distracted between paragraphs, and eventually re-reading the email to make sure they understand what’s going on.In some cases, more detailed readings are necessary, but if you notice a trend of extended or egregiously long reading patterns, you might want to step in and take action. Do note that in some cases, development reading disabilities like dyslexia may affect a person’s ability to read and respond to email, so don’t use email reading speed as a sole indicator of performance.
- Time writing. Employee email performance and overall work can also be evaluated in terms of how long they spend writing emails. Some employees will be naturally faster, able to command their words easily and create concise, to-the-point summaries.Others spend far too long writing emails, ending up with lengthy masses of text that, in turn, make recipients spend more time reading. In conversations with multiple participants, this can have a cascading effect of lowering productivity, making everyone “busier” for no reason.
Email productivity analytics are hard to gather and interpret on your own, which is why we built EmailAnalytics. EmailAnalytics collects all the above data points, and dozens more, and allows you to intuitively explore how those data points dictate your employees’ productivity—and your bottom line. After logging into the app, it should become immediately evident who’s really busy, who’s spending unnecessary time on email, and who’s just pretending they’re busy.
Website Traffic Monitoring
In addition to tracking and monitoring email, you may find it helpful to equip your computers and your company network with technology that tracks what sites your employees visit. If your employees are using work computers and/or a work network, you’re entirely within your rights to monitor their online traffic, though you still might want to mention it formally in an employee handbook just to be certain.
The easiest way to do this is with online traffic monitoring software, which doesn’t cost much to install and generally isn’t hard to set up. If there are certain sites in particular you want to filter out, you can do so—but be aware that most sites have multiple functions, and aren’t exclusively used as a distraction.
Facebook and LinkedIn, for example, count as social media sites and can be used for non-work-related entertainment, but can also be used to network with new sales prospects and build a social audience.
Once established, you can see where your employees are spending their online time, and if there are specific sites or employees that pose a problem to your productivity as a whole.
Beyond Objective Data
I do want to note that while measuring and interpreting objective data is the most reliable path to understanding, objectively, how your employees work, objective data isn’t everything. Subjective factors, including your employees’ demeanor when dealing with customers, the quality of the work they produce, and how they engage with their coworkers, should all be taken into consideration.
Sometimes, workers who spend more time on tasks end up returning more than enough value to make up for that time.
Finding a Solution
Using the above strategies, you can likely sort your “busy” employees into one of four categories:
- Truly busy employees. Keep these people and change nothing.
- Employees with perception problems. These employees aren’t as busy as they claim to be, but still have a sufficient workload.
- Employees with innocent productivity problems. These employees spend lots of time on work-related tasks, but aren’t spending their time wisely.
- Employees wasting time. These employees aren’t doing enough for your organization, and are likely wasting time in conscious and deliberate ways.
Your genuinely busy employees are golden, so let’s see what you can do with the other three.
Employees With Perception Problems
Employees with perception problems are just bad at estimating how busy they truly are. If they claim to be busier than reality would suggest, your strategies should focus on reacquainting them with that reality:
- Confront them with the data. First, have an open conversation about the amount of time they’re working, and how they’re spending that time, pointing to the data as evidence. Since the perception of “busyness” is a subjective one, your workers will be able to argue with you, indefinitely, over whether they feel busy, but they won’t be able to argue with you about the amount of time they’ve tracked or about the emails they’ve spent.Don’t be surprised if these employees become defensive, but remember, you aren’t attacking them; you’re simply letting them know where they stand in relation to the rest of your team.
- Establish new gauges for busyness. Working together (preferably), you can establish new guidelines and descriptions for what counts as being formally “busy” and what doesn’t. For example, you might set a new minimum for number of tasks completed in a week (if your tasks are quantifiable), or the amount of hours they should be spending working on various tasks.Setting goals and providing positive feedback in these cases is vital if you want your employee to respond positively.
- Continue monitoring. There’s no guarantee that your conversation will take effect immediately, so continue monitoring them to ensure they remain in compliance. If you continue to notice a discrepancy between how busy they claim to be and how busy they actually are, you may need to take further action.
Employees With Innocent Productivity Problems
These types of employees truly are busy, in the sense that their time at work is fully occupied with work-related tasks. They aren’t spending time playing on their phones or gossiping with others, yet they still aren’t as formally productive as their counterparts.
This is because they’re spending too much time on certain tasks, either because they’re using an inefficient strategy or because they aren’t committed to improving their personal performance.
- Identify key areas of weakness. Start by identifying key areas of weakness. It’s rare that an employee is truly slow and inefficient at every task, so it’s likely that there’s one or two tasks that stand out. For example, your employee may be especially slow at writing emails, or they may struggle with tasks related to reporting and analysis.If this is the case, your first line of improvement is delegating and rebalancing responsibilities; reassign tasks in this employee’s area of weakness, and assign them new tasks related to their strengths.
- Address group issues. If you notice many employees in a given department are having productivity issues, there may be high-level problems affecting the group. This could stem from a number of different places, so it’s hard to address reliably, but try to pin down the root of the problem.For example, you may have a needy client who emails your team incessantly; this could cause a drastic rise in the number of emails sent and received by certain members of your team. You may also have email formatting or procedural requirements that interfere with your employees’ ability to work efficiently.For example, if you have a weekly email that isn’t truly necessary, it could end up taking up countless hours of employee time; if you don’t believe me, consider this case study of a large company whose mandatory weekly meeting ended up costing them 300,000 man-hours per year. You may need to loosen your requirements if you want to see across-the-board improvements.
- Make individual action plans. If your productivity issues seem to be tied to an individual person, or multiple individual people, make personalized action plans for each of them. Again, your focus here should be on positive reinforcement and goal setting, both of which can help even antagonist employees become more productive.
Employees Wasting Time
The last category of employee is the most frustrating, and potentially the trickiest to deal with. These are employees who are deliberately, or at least consciously, wasting company time by engaging in distractions or avoiding work.
These employees may not be lying for malicious reasons—for example, they may be engaging in these behaviors because they’re insecure about their job stability—but nevertheless, it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with immediately.
- Be upfront. Start by being upfront with the employee in question. Ask them how they feel about their current workload and responsibilities, and if they continue to claim to be busy, confront them with the objective data you’ve been able to gather—just like with the chronic overestimating crowd. They won’t be able to argue with the objective figures.
- Impose new restrictions (if necessary). If your employee has certain habits that are preventing them from being as productive as their peers, you may need to impose new restrictions. For example, you may block popular social media sites at your organization (though this may not be a good idea to do for the entire building based on one person’s actions). You may also require them to sign up for more tasks, or take on responsibilities from their coworkers to reach new minimum quotas and standards.
- Threaten disciplinary action. Though first-line disciplinary action is only necessary if an employee has knowingly and deliberately violated your employee code of conduct, you may wish to threaten disciplinary action if their pattern of behavior continues. For example, if they continue to reject new projects when they aren’t as productive as their coworkers, you may reduce them to being part-time, or write them up for a formal offense.
- Readjust workloads and continue monitoring. Either way, you’ll probably want to readjust the workload of your team. The truly busy employees should see a reduction in their respective workloads, while the employees who aren’t nearly as productive or objectively “busy” should see an increase. At that point, you’ll want to continue monitoring the situation. If you’re using email analytics software such as EmailAnalytics, it shouldn’t be hard to see whether the situation is improving or not. Give it some time; it will take at least a few weeks, if not a few months, for things to stabilize.
- Consider replacement. If the problem does continue and your employee is unable or unwilling to meet expectations, you’ll need to consider replacing them. Hiring someone new and training them may be costly and annoying, but it’s worth it to have a long-term team member who’s willing to take their share of the workload.
There are many reasons for employees to exaggerate how much work they have to do, both consciously and unconsciously. If you want your business to avoid the worst effects of these exaggerations, you need to use email productivity analytics and other employee monitoring software tools to properly assess how much time your employees spend on daily work responsibilities.
Fortunately, once you track down the root of the problem, there are multiple strategies that can help you repair the team and bring your workers back to a state of high productivity.
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Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the founder & CEO of EmailAnalytics.