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Why ‘hot potato’ workflow is taking a toll on wellbeing

08:00am August 17 2022

Being handed a range of tasks across multiple communication channels can lead to employees feeling overwhelmed. (Getty)

Ever feel overwhelmed by the number of tasks being delegated to you by co-workers? Chances are you’ve experienced “hot potato” workflow. 

It’s a term coined by Andrew Filev, founder and CEO of workflow management company Wrike, and refers to tasks that are rapidly taken on and passed off without much consideration for the person receiving the extra work. This potentially contributes to tasks getting dropped while also causing undue stress to employees.

It’s a trend that has been turbocharged in many workplaces during the pandemic. The adoption of hybrid working has brought with it a wave of new communication tools to help connect co-workers who are no longer consistently based in the same office space.

“No matter where they are, all employees find themselves inundated with requests and tasks coming at them from multiple directions, whether that’s phone calls, Slack messages, Zoom Meetings, or casual conversations in the break room,” Filev wrote in a July article in Forbes magazine.  

Business coach and recruitment expert Michael Edelstein says employees at most accounting and banking firms are using at least ten communication channels: from instant messaging services to project management platforms, internal email systems, plus the systems clients and suppliers are using, as well as the old-fashioned telephone. 

“When I started in corporate ten years ago, there was just email, and maybe an intranet if you were in a big company,” says Edelstein. “Even before COVID-19 created the move to hybrid work, there were so many communication channels as a result of the massive tech boom. Nowadays there's just too many apps and shiny new things, and often companies that acquire this tech are just using a small portion of it.” 

Business coach and recruitment expert Michael Edelstein. (Supplied)

The “hot potato” workflow can affect wellbeing, with staff feeling overwhelmed with tasks, says David Burroughs, chief mental health officer at Westpac. Issues around role clarity, appropriate recognition for work, and perceived inequity in work allocation, can have a serious impact on someone’s experience at work. Companies need to pay attention, because if resentment builds and morale erodes, it can lead to people leaving organisations. 

“We've got such a multitude of communication channels that it can feel like we have multiple masters,” says Burroughs. “Everything can sometimes feel like it is urgent and important. Those around us don't necessarily have visibility over our priorities, or our workloads, so we can sometimes feel like we are getting hit from all sides."

Often it is the same people who end up picking up the extra work and get ‘burned’.

“Who do we pass the potato to? Usually the person that's busiest, because we know that the busy people get things done,” says Burroughs. “We often see those people paying what is known as the ‘passion tax’.”

These kinds of team members are highly motivated and strongly committed to their organisation and carry high expectations of themselves. When that combines with a high workload, they can end up working to the detriment of themselves.

Burroughs believes the remedy is to reclaim the “lost art of assertiveness”. On an individual level, we must get better at learning to say no. 

“It’s not a blanket ‘no’ to everything,” he explains. “It is about being able to respectfully say to someone, ‘Hey, I'm going to push back a little bit here because my needs are as important as yours.’”

Westpac's chief mental health officer, David Burroughs. (Supplied)

Practicing good digital hygiene can also help. At the end of the day, log off, switch on out-of-office if necessary, and close the laptop. Resist the urge to send one more email. 

Burroughs suggests checking the time you sent your first email of the day, and the last. Are your work patterns sustainable?

After recently discovering that he was spending 20 hours a week just checking accounting-related Facebook groups and using WhatsApp, Edelstein started using an app called StayFree. It blocks him from accessing certain platforms for a portion of the day, which has been a game changer.

While acknowledging that power dynamics can make it difficult to push back on extra work, Edelstein believes that self-preservation necessitates it.

“Throw the potato back, not forward. The person who threw the work at you needs to realise that they cannot continue to do that,” says Edelstein. 

Saying no is hard, acknowledges Burroughs. “We're hardwired to say yes. We're often overly optimistic around how long anything's going to take. There’s no such thing as ‘just 10 minutes’.”

Edelstein feels that work culture is more to blame than technology. Education can help teams become aware of the detrimental impact of an always-on culture and the productivity losses that ensue.

“Tech facilitates a certain lack of conscientiousness on the part of passing off work, but it comes down to the manager setting ground rules around how work is given out,” says Edelstein. 

This might include centralising the list of team members’ ad hoc tasks – consolidating multiple channels into one place – where all team members have visibility of workflow, and can check in on their colleagues’ capacity before throwing another potato their way. 

“When a task is delegated, there needs to a minimum level of detail around it,” says Edelstein. 

Jessica Mudditt is the author of Our Home in Myanmar. She is based in Sydney and as a freelance journalist, she has an interest in workplace issues and technology.

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