30 September 2016

An employee is not helpless

The blame for workload is often being given to the employer. This is not always justified. Employers should be taught to break out of their role of learned helplessness, says Paul ter Wal, under company name ANDARE, specialist in finding the balance between vitality, health and employability.

Text by Nicole Weidema

“What is the reason why people consider workload to be a bad thing? I love workload. When my agenda is full, I finish things faster and get a lot more work done. I do notice that I’ve got a lot to do, but I don’t experience that as stress. I’m an independent entrepreneur and, pressure means more revenue and continuity as the reward. But an employee doesn’t experience this reward,” says Ter Wal. Employees should, according to him, also feel a reward when they are busy. Money does not have much to do with that. “You should reward people with something else then money. Because, if you do so the law of diminishing marginal utility will kick in. Getting more money is fun for a while, but you get used to it.

The reward that makes people feel like they do get enough money for their work is taking care of a balance between work demands and energy- and resources, states Ter Wal. Three factors are crucial in this case: influence on your own work, more development opportunities and social facilities. “What it’s about is: “How much influence do you have on your work? Are you able to job craft, decide along with your colleagues how and when you do your job? ‘Afterwards you should have a look at development opportunities. Can you grow doing your job and become more professional? What influence do you have on your social relationship with others? How many trust do you and your team get from your supervisor? If all these boxes are checked, you can also be busy without being stressed. The employer should offer the opportunities. He benefits from this as well; passionate people are more productive.

Giving people space

Ter Wal thinks it is notable that smaller organizations deal with the approach of workload a lot better than the bigger ones. “For example, have a look at a small construction company that has to do a job. This company can also give their people freedom do divide their own work, by saying: ’You are professionals, just do it!’ If you give professionals the space to do what they’re good at, they will think along and the quality of the work will improve. This already happens within small companies.

Instead of controlling people and micromanage them, employers should teach their employees to break out of their learned helplessness, says Ter Wal. “It is too often the case that employees are held responsible for everything: for the employment, for you not calling in sick for no reason, for you not experiencing stress, and for the fact that you have enough carreer options. There’s too much judging of employees, what about the “ones that accepted the job”? Research Company Gallup does a worldwide research every two years to find out how passionate employees are. Turns out, us Dutch people are not very passionate about our jobs. Approximately 10 percent of the people are really passionate, after them there’s another 10 percent, those are the people who are really frustrated and don’t want anything anymore. Then there’s the rest, 80 percent, who seem to be doing just fine and regularly do their jobs. De Dutch “C-culture”. People in this group are the people who experience the most stress from work.


That Dutch culture is, according to Ter Wal, disastrous if we want to take on the problem of workload and stress. He advocates for more amenability, not only employers but also employees. “The people here rarely ever get addressed on their responsibilities and their own future. And at the same time people are modifying visions and strategies within companies. Pay a visit to a company and ask the receptionist what the company’s vision is. She won’t have a clue. But she does work for the company… Companies should wonder why they’ve chosen a certain vision and from which experience the picket posts were determined that can never be doubted. Within the boundaries of those picket posts you can give people the freedom to divide their work according to their own view and to work on their own development and meaningfulness. But also make sure that when the employers work outside the terms of the picket posts, they will be fired. Because then they won’t fit in with the certain and shared culture. This is not a bad thing, but what companies often do nowadays is let people become ill, or make them ill and send them to do all kinds of projects.”


Ter Wal has his own mission as wel: make healthy companies better. “I’ve made my own Maslow piramid. When I pay a visit to a company, I will find out why the default is so high. That’s the first, second and third layer. You won’t be able to prevent a certain number of defaults, there will always be flu epidemics and people could unfortunately get cancer. When the default is lower than 3 percent, I’ll tell you not to worry. When this number is higher, you should find out why. De next layer of the pyramid is what will be done with prevention and health improvement. How can you offer your help? The layers above that one are employability, passion and at the very top approachability and accountability. The boss should start with carrying this out, so that he can expect to be treated the same way in return. “


One of the worst things employees and employees can do is focus on ‘Oh wow, we are so stressed’, says Ter Wal. “This immediately makes you think curative. You have to see what you can do at the front to prevent stress and defaults.

We all know that you should eat healthy, have enough movement, and that we shouldn’t smoke or drink too much alcohol. Now the time has come to consider the prevention of workload as a normal thing. You can’t say ‘It is normal for this companies’ culture to have a lot of workload. I’ve never come across a company or a culture. It’s always about the people and the choices or excuses that we make up.

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