Looking for a word or term to describe a decrease in overall productivity when overloaded with work

I think this is a pretty common occurrence at many jobs, and I can explain it easily and have witnessed it firsthand, but I’m wondering if there may be an actual word for it.

I’m wondering if there is an actual term for a worker becoming less productive overall if assigned more work than they can handle. Overwhelmed or bogged down come to mind, but they’re not exactly what I’m looking for, and I’m hoping for a more “technical” term.

For example if an average worker can process up to 100 transactions a day, as long as they are only given 100 or less to complete, but if they are assigned more than their limit they actually end up not even being able to do their usual 100 (let’s say they are assigned 120, which leads to them only getting 90 done). From what I’ve seen this would typically be caused by things like wasted time giving status reports or addressing issues caused by missed deadlines, or having too many separate projects going on simultaneously to keep them all straight all the time or “switching gears” too often to be efficient. In my scenario, the amount of work assigned to the worker isn’t necessarily expected to be all completed, however merely asking them to try to “get as much done as possible” slows them down overall.

Is there a “real” word/term for this?

“Overtasked” or “overburdened” would probably be used in the manufacturing world (where I work, anyway).

“Burnout” is a related concept and might be adequate for your purposes. It conveys the idea of having been required to over-perform to the extent that you’re now not even able to perform at your normal level of competence.

Quite clever sarcastic article describes this phenomenon from the employer’s point of view, using the term “undersourcing”:

Seems to me that this is part of the very definition of burnout:

The thing with burnout is that it implies this happening over a long period of time. The OP seems to be more about a nearly instantaneous effect.

Another term is diminishing returns, or “…the decrease in the marginal (per-unit) output of a production process as the amount of a single factor of production is increased, ceteris paribus.” It applies to any input, be it overtime hours for an individual, fertilizer or even equipment such as computers or trucks for a business.

Mismanaged would be my personal opinion, but I think overloaded is probably closer to what you’re looking for.

I frequently suffer from that at work- due to the departure of a very competent and much-loved co-worker, I picked up half of what he did on top of my full-time job, and 2 other people picked up the other half.

I don’t do as well on both jobs together, as I’d do on either alone, and I frequently have a hard time keeping everything straight.

I blame our management- they are absolutely incapable or unwilling to stand up to our internal clients (I’m in IT) and tell them that we can’t do projects in the time frame allotted with the people we have. Instead, the internal clients realize that they can get results by manufacturing crises for us to solve, which demoralizes everyone, puts a lot of stress on everyone, and generally makes it not the most fun place to work.

I think if the IT management would tell the business “That’s great that you have some problem, but your failure to plan ahead isn’t our problem. We told you that each implementation of this type takes 9 weeks, and if you tell the client we’ll have it done in 4, then that’s your problem, not ours. We’ll have it to you in 9 weeks.”

I’ve heard the word “thrashing” used. It’s a term from computer science used to describe a system that has so many active tasks that it spends almost all of its time switching from one process to another and almost no time actually doing any work.

In spite of having previously suggested the competing term “undersourced”, I’ve got to vote for “thrashing” as the best answer to the OP’s question. It’s a pre-existing technical term whose definition is very neatly analogous to the sort of productivity-draining overload that the OP was talking about:

Read “task” for “process” and “brain” for “resource” and you’ve got Blunt’s examples in a nutshell.

I was going to suggest “despair” but “thrashing” seems to cover it thoroughly. I know when I have been in the situation described my mind has thrashed about (“floundered” is another good word for this) trying to prioritize the tasks that I need to accomplish, and it feels like wasted time.

This was what I was going to say. I’ve used it myself. I suspect it was more popular back when memories were smaller and virtual memory systems not quite as smart. I’ve seen it happen also.



A relevant quote right from your IT field: “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later” from Fred Brooks, designer of the IBM 360-series operating system in The Mythical Man-Month.