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Workload illusion

Almost everyone knows the concept of optical illusions. But can you also recognize the workload illusion? And what if you can’t? The following presents a plea for a better founded workload policy.

Optical illusions

In the famous Müller-Lyer illusion two parallel lines of equal length appear to be uneven because their shafts end with respectively inward and outward-facing ‘arrows’. The horizontal bar in the displayed illusion has the same shade of grey everywhere, though the background makes us think differently. This is what we call an optical illusion. The thing we perceive is not what’s actually there.

Workload illusion

Depending on their role in the organization, people perceive their workload differently. Managers see less work than there is; while employees experience more work than there actually is. 
This difference does not occur at only one daily task, but it does in the frame of a composite collection of tasks. Consider the following sequence with a total duration of 8 hours: 5 tasks of 1 hour + 10 tasks of 15 minutes + 15 tasks of 2 minutes. For an employee, the latter seems more than 8 hours of work due to the large amount of 30 tasks. That is: "30 tasks which on average take half an hour each". This seems less to a manager because he/she only recognizes the 5 major tasks and does not or only partially consider the other ones. These remain off-radar, which makes it: "5 hours with a little extra work". 
The ‘workload illusion’ is how I like to brand this discrepancy between perception and reality. And that illusion is no figment of the imagination.

Indirect evidence intensifies the illusion

Following a workload perception inquiry, I had a meeting with a director of a large company on workload. The director noticed how everyone went home at 5 pm.
“So in practice, it’s not too bad”, he said. He thus made use of indirect evidence to support his perspective. Conversely, the Works Council used the perception inquiry as indirect evidence. Leaving the question of what those employees do at home after 8 pm out of the equation, we cannot deploy indirect evidence to break a perspective difference. Instead of convergence to the middle, the perspectives diverge towards the end of the illusion.

The disillusionment

We all know the tricks you can play with optical illusions. Nobody will send you to a psychologist if you fall for them. You will be helped to recognize the illusion and – if you can’t – you learn to reflect on your limited perception. But how can we deal with the workload illusion in our companies? The director is a capable manager and does not wish to put the relations with the Works Council under pressure. In turn, the Works Council does not want to get into an impossible position. Workload remains an unspoken taboo; workload policy remains a disillusionment, which is a lot less funny. And that is an almost cynical euphemism given that some sectors experience a burnout rate of nearly 20%. This declining health however, is not the only result. The confidence also decreases, the cooperation becomes more difficult, individual persons withdraw and humanity disappears from organizations.

Take it seriously

Our social cohesion is based on the making of agreements, not the preservation of illusions – even though it sometimes seems this way. Divergent experiences of the workload therefore need to be resolved. Managers cannot do this by sending their employees to see psychologists, nor by giving them unlimited time to finish their work. None of these possible solution directions will bring the problem closer to a jointly supported solution. Therefore, it is time to officially recognize the workload illusion and to seriously integrate it into the workload policy.


Illusions can be broken with alternative perceptions. A perspective based on reason and logic may not seem too obvious, but has a particularly illuminating value. Managers can, nay must ask their employees who experience pressure at work to explicate their duties and make their task pressure insightful. There are good instruments that serve this end, such as the Taaktuner (‘Task tuner’). What then matters is the search for solutions in dialogue and thereby improving both cooperation and the problem-solving ability. This renders employees more vital, organizations more agile and people more creative.

Workload policy

A good workload policy is based on diagnosis, dialogue and taking action. In a large number of studies workload is diagnosed through objectifiable categories of subjective experiences, while workload is actually the subjective experience of an objectifiable fact. A workload policy in a philosophical mirror room can by no means be effective. When diagnosing, we require instruments that are able to reveal the workload illusion. The grey bar has the same shade all over. To measure is to know. What do you measure?

Maarten de Winter

Geïnteresseerd in onze nieuwsbrief


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