To get what you want out of your career, it’s crucial to manage your manager's perception of your workload, says our talent doctor Rob Yeung
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This article was first published in the April 2018 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
To what extent do you feel hampered by stress at work? Researchers have typically found quite a poor correlation between objective workplace factors and the extent to which people report feeling stress. Circumstances such as tough deadlines, difficult clients, unsupportive colleagues and long hours do cause stress in some employees. However, other workers may cope well, or even find the same conditions stimulating.
New studies on a concept known as stress mindset suggest that your career may be affected less by the amount of stress that you face than the extent to which your line manager sees that stress as either harmful or beneficial. Scientists led by Alia Crum at Yale University have found that some people have a stress-is-debilitating mindset, in which they believe that stress impairs their and other people’s performance, productivity and health. In contrast, individuals with a stress-is-enhancing mindset are more likely to feel that stress may stimulate performance, productivity and wellbeing too.
Your line manager’s beliefs about the benefits or harmfulness of a heavy workload may have important consequences for your career. A 2018 study led by management researcher Nili Ben-Avi at Tel Aviv University found that managers with a stress-is-enhancing mindset were less able to identify the symptoms of burnout; they were also less likely to offer support to employees who were experiencing high workloads. However, such managers were also more likely to see their employees as ready for promotion.
In contrast, managers with a stress-is-debilitating mindset were more likely to spot burnout and offer support to overloaded employees. However, these managers were less likely to recommend overworked employees for promotion.
One implication of this research is that you should not assume that your line manager will be able to see when you are significantly under pressure and feeling stressed. How you feel about your workload may correspond quite poorly with how your line manager thinks you may be feeling.
Communicate your needs
In practical terms, be sure to communicate clearly and frequently what you want from your work. If you are feeling overwhelmed but your line manager happens to have a stress-is-enhancing mindset, then he or she could easily overlook your distress. On the other hand, if you have a higher-than-average workload but still want more, then a line manager with a stress-is-debilitating mindset could be withholding further opportunities in the mistaken belief that you already have too much to cope with. It is only by providing updates on a regular basis that you can ensure that your manager adopts the mindset that is most beneficial to your needs.
Of course, nearly everybody would like to be promoted in the future. But the question you should be asking yourself regularly is: what do you need at this precise moment in time?
If you are feeling overloaded over the course of a tough few weeks or months, then consider asking for more support. However, bear in mind that your line manager will perceive you more favourably if you have a plan and can show that you are still to some extent in control. Before approaching your manager, take time away from the office – perhaps one evening or over a weekend – to review all of your tasks and projects. Which are the critical ones that add the most value to your team? Which other pieces of work could you potentially delay, downgrade or hand off to colleagues?
On the other hand, when your workload becomes more manageable, take the initiative to change your line manager’s mindset by asking for further assignments and projects. Don’t assume that your manager will automatically spot that you are ready. However, do not simply ask for more work – as more work does not always equate to work that will develop your skills and enhance your career prospects. Be strategic. Consider the criteria that are likely to make you promotable and look for specific projects that will allow you to develop the broader skills that will help you to achieve that next leap up the career ladder.
Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace: talentspace.co.uk
Dr Rob Tweets @robyeung
CPD technical article
"If you are feeling overloaded over the course of a tough few weeks or months, then consider asking for more support"