Stacking Work Syndrome: A New Management Malady

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 12, 2019

Over the last three years, I have been conducting a major leadership study with a sample of executives around the world who respond to biweekly, e-mailed surveys we call “Pulse Dialogues”™. I ask them a short set of questions about their work, their companies and themselves, then I very quickly synthesize the data and share results, learning and trends with everyone who participated in the survey.

One of the key findings over the past two years has been that leadership energy and confidence have been on the decline. After uncovering these numbers, I went back to the people in the leadership group, shared the data and asked them WHY they thought this downward trend existed. Their responses uncovered a problem that is spreading around the world. I call it “Stacking Work Syndrome.”

The Scores

The overall energy reported by executives in our sample dropped from 6.72 in summer 2004 to 6.25 in summer 2005 (see table 1). Data “hot off the press” from our July, 2006, update reveal that energy has once again declined, to an average of 6.18 for the sample. The 2006 data show 10% of the leadership sample in the overly energized or “burnout” state and 16% reporting no energy at all or very low levels of energy.

I track energy because according to a large-scale study energy is validated and predictive of long-term financial performance of firms (e.g., stock price, earnings, overall growth and even survival).  Energy predicts not only firm performance outcomes, but when gathered at the individual employee level, it predicts turnover, absenteeism, customer satisfaction, team outcomes, performance appraisal scores (using 360 feedback systems) and even patient satisfaction in hospital settings. Thus, I track energy because I know it is an indicator of performance. Leaders’ energy, in particular, is important because it predicts employee energy, and then overall employee energy predicts performance and productivity.

We also asked five questions about various aspects of leadership confidence, and the trend data shows that confidence in all metrics declined. In the same way that consumer confidence is related to buying habits, leader confidence is related to leader energy and the energy levels of their employees. When we see confidence in all aspects of business go down, with the highest drop in the degree to which these leaders think their firms can change, we should begin to worry.

Table 1:  Changes in Energy and Leadership Confidence

Summer 2006 update (as of July 14, 2006) shows declining scores again—average energy of 6.18.


 Summer 2004 (July)

Summer 2005

Points Change

 Energy (mean or average)




 Energy (% in high energy zone)




 Energy (% in low energy zone)




 Confidence in the overall leadership team of    their firms (% saying they are confident)




 Confidence in economic climate of their  business




 Confidence that they have the right people and skills.




 Confidence in their ability to execute on their company’s vision




 Confidence in their firm’s ability to change as needed.




 Confidence in their own personal leadership and management skills.




In the follow-up dialogue on the results, leaders in the study said that they simply have so much work to do that they do not know what to do when they get to work on Monday morning. The clients with whom I work claim the same thing, as do the many employees who report to these senior leaders and who work with the HR teams. These people are highly educated; they have calendars; they keep notes on the projects and work that they must do, but they still are confused about how to best spend their time.  They have too much work to accomplish in the amount of hours they can devote to their work. The most recent business environment led to layoffs, cautious hiring, and risk-averse business practice. Additionally, slow but sure growth has led to more work with less people.

How do individuals function in this environment? They “surf” from project to project—doing a little bit of work on each one. The logic is that if an employee does enough on each one, then each pile goes down a bit, and managers and co-workers are placated. But in reality, the individual succeeds at nothing. He or she doesn’t finish projects, feels inadequate and becomes deenergized. I see this happening in my own organization, and it’s very difficult to manage because our work changes every day. It’s reassuring to know you are not alone in this problem—that it’s an epidemic—but it does not help.

Today’s leaders face an additional battle: They’re worried—actually scared—that their best and brightest people will leave. Because if really well-organized employees—those who know the business and understand how to get things done—leave, then you have to hire someone new and train that person to come up to speed. Of course all of this takes time. That means someone else’s stack grows even taller.


As a manager, you have the power to provide a “cure” for the stacking work syndrome. There are four easy steps:

  1. Share the results of this study with your employees and then engage them in dialogue about themselves.
  2. If your employees are indeed suffering from “stacking work,” help them set priorities and manage their time better.
  3. Once priorities are set and your team starts accomplishing even the smallest of goals, share the good news. The number one generator of employee energy is success. Wins do not have to be big. Recognizing and celebrating short-term, tactical successes help make others feel that they too can be successful.
  4. Start with yourself. Remember—energy is catchy. Our research shows that leader energy directly impacts employee energy, so if you find yourself “deenergized” or suffering from stacking work syndrome, take the time you need to prioritize your own work or to work with your direct manager and help optimize your own energy levels.

About the Study

The research done via the Leadership Pulse comes from a large sample of executives (over 4,000 to date) who have agreed to participate in short Pulse Dialogues conducted every two months. We gather data on topics of strategic importance to leaders and then provide results to those who participate in this University of Michigan, Executive Education project. Our goal is to learn from real-time data, create a dialogue around the subjects we study and help leaders continually bring value to their organizations. A total of 369 people participated in the May 31, 2005, study. Of those who responded, 31% were in “C-level” positions, 23% were at VP level and 25% were at the director level. The remaining respondents were in senior manager or manager-level positions. 

You can register your leadership team to participate in the Leadership Pulse study. Our goal is to expand leadership knowledge and theory by listening to the executives who are part of the study. You can sign up for the process and receive free reports.