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Work paralysis is the newest productivity killer: What it is and 3 ways HR can combat it



It’s no secret that productivity has been a hot-button issue for HR this year. Many of the workplace trends – like Bare Minimum Mondays and “productivity paranoia” – have centered around making sure workers are at their most productive and most engaged.

But now, there’s another productivity threat that’s capturing attention: work paralysis – a feeling of wanting to be productive, but being so overwhelmed by trying to meet tight deadlines and juggle projects that the employee is “paralyzed” and can’t do anything at all. It’s not new, but it’s an issue that’s becoming more and more common. 

The good news is that there are steps HR can take before work paralysis turns into disengagement, absenteeism and, eventually, turnover. Here’s everything you need to know. 

What is work paralysis?

Mental blocks that lead to procrastination when workloads are high or there are too many compounding factors at play isn’t new. For those who are neurodiverse, such as those with ADHD, work paralysis can look a lot like task paralysis, which is a similar feeling of being so overwhelmed with a certain task that it feels impossible to even start.

“As productivity challenges capture headlines and ‘experts’ speculate on the why, it seems like we’re ignoring the obvious. Perhaps it’s because our people are exhausted [by the] pandemic, civil unrest and the economy,” says Otto Berkes, CEO of HireRoad. “Perhaps the untold stress, grief, and trauma on individuals have triggered fight, flight and freeze responses.” 

In fact, both task and work paralysis involve an “overwhelm freeze” which is a type of freeze response – activated by the nervous system in response to a perceived threat – that renders someone stuck.

Despite wanting to be productive, work paralysis can keep employees stuck in a procrastination loop, ultimately impacting their productivity, mental health and your bottom line.

“If many people are paralyzed, so too is the business,” says Berkes. 

What it can do to your company

Employees who are experiencing issues outside of work – such as poor sleep, anxiety or lots of responsibilities – may be more likely to experience work paralysis, even if they could previously manage their workload. 

And it’s not hard to imagine what happens to a business when workers a plagued by work paralysis: Productivity loss can lead to profit loss and many other issues. “More often than not, stuck people don’t thrive – they do what they must to survive,” says Berkes. 

Although most people can relate to the feeling of having so much to do that they feel like they can’t do anything, having workers who experience it often or many workers experiencing it at once can have damaging effects on your business. Work paralysis can lead to:

  • Disengagement trends like quiet quitting
  • Decreased morale and reduced feeling of belonging, and
  • Widespread culture issues that result in turnover.

What HR can do

Although work paralysis can be a productivity killer, an organization that notices it and takes action can actually turn it into a way to understand their workforce better and help all employees manage workloads.

“The proliferation of HR technology has yielded a wealth of data points about an organization’s workforce. Yet most of that information sits underutilized,” says Berkes. “HR can help manage work paralysis by helping the business better understand its people. Armed with those insights, HR can calibrate programs to address them so their people, and business, can thrive.”

Once HR has the data points – through surveys, employee listening and seeking out feedback – to understand what’s really hurting employees, they can take steps to change it. 

Helping your workforce tackle work paralysis – or any kind of productivity issue – may look like:

  • Creating mentorship opportunities to help workers who struggle with issues like prioritization and time management learn from their peers
  • Working with managers to create and communicate solid, reliable expectations for their team so workers know what’s expected of them, or
  • Encouraging a positive workplace culture that values feedback and open communication so employees who are struggling can reach out before work paralysis becomes a larger issue.

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