When learning at work becomes overwhelming

Many skilled jobs require a considerable amount of learning while doing, but learning requirements have reached unrealistic levels in many roles and work situations today. This phenomenon of “too much to learn” is not only feeding the perception of critical skills shortages in many sectors, but it can also accelerate burnout.


Consider this: chief nursing officers (CNOs), who oversee large nursing workforces in midsize and major health systems, have knowledge-intensive jobs to begin with. These leaders barely have time to brush their teeth. But with the rapid implementation of electronic health records (EHRs), CNOs are now expected to master new trends in health care information technologies to engage hospital leaders in strategic discussions about major technology investments.

This technology knowledge is piled on top of existing expertise nurse executives are expected to have about clinical practice, patient experience, finance, safety, employee relations, process improvement, leadership development, and managing interdisciplinary teams. The list goes on and on.

“Without sufficient time to process and make sense of all that must be learned, burnout manifests in several ways,” says Michael Bleich, president of Goldfarb School of Nursing. Executives can stop taking in information that seems too complex or problematic to interpret, and instead grab superficial summaries that preclude a deeper understanding of the subject. Thus, leaders faced with learning overload are more likely to default to intuition, rather than more evidence-based decision making.

This problem is not limited to top management, however. Even in an office setting, demands to learn more can become unrealistic. Young management accountants today are supposed to acquire competencies in a dizzying array of topics, such as advanced presentation skills, Six Sigma, quantitative methods, and even leadership. Is it surprising that management thinks there is a skills gap in management accounting?

Several things happen to less experienced employees when there’s too much to learn. A sense of frustration and incompetence can set in, as employees blame themselves for not knowing enough. Priorities get misplaced when it’s not clear what to learn first, and colleagues get angry if mistakes are made that hurt the group’s performance.

The primary driver for new learning is increasingly complex and essential technologies. In their important book Race Against the Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that, because of recent advances in information technologies, we have entered a new phase of history. These MIT economists insist we’re now in a race between education and technology, if workers’ skills are to stay economically viable. I’d argue that talk of a “skills gap” in any field (whether real or imagined) is evidence that education—both formal and informal—is losing the race with technology.

But it’s not just technology causing this learning overload. Other factors, such as a thin leadership pipeline, relentless emphasis on performance improvement, increased supply chain integration, continual new product introductions, and the demands of regulatory compliance, make intense learning an essential task in most jobs today.

Failure to anticipate and accommodate greater learning loads in many jobs produces more costly turnover as employees quit in frustration or are forced out because they can’t perform at the required level. As more experienced Baby Boomers retire and rapidly changing technologies and global competition demand more complex know-how, these learning dilemmas will only increase. Structuring roles with unrealistic learning requirements, combined with high performance standards, will be an increasingly costly problem.

You can reduce the risks that learning overload will increase unwanted turnover and hurt individual performance by answering three questions.

  1. What is a realistic amount of learning to expect of people in this job?
    Of course, learning capacity depends on the individuals involved and the specific profession. Medical interns in their first year out of school, for example, are expected to learn voraciously, while you wouldn’t expect the same behavior of risk managers in an insurance company. If it’s not already clear, management needs to set realistic expectations and make learning requirements for a particular role discussable.

Ironically, setting higher expectations for learning is likely to improve retention of younger employees, who are usually much more attracted to jobs where they are asked to learn a lot, as opposed to positions where learning is limited. Managers must keep that in mind as they’re assessing each position.

  1. What are learning priorities?
    Some jobs today require levels of learning than seem unsustainable. New nurses can be overwhelmed when they are hired into a complex health care setting, often leading to unwanted turnover. In order to be clear about what employees do and don’t need to learn, management must communicate what skills or know-how it considers most critical to success in a particular job. This means being more specific and realistic in defining particular roles. Does an internal sales job in manufacturing require mastering the entire product line and customer base all at once? Should certain segments be given priority? Is there a more logical order to master knowledge essential in the job?
  1. How can we make learning more practical and efficient?
    Learning overload is exacerbated when employees don’t have the infrastructure they need to improve their know-how. My colleague Steve Trautman recommends an “air, food, and water” list of what’s needed to learn effectively in a particular job. This means identifying the fundamental computer setups and orientation, current documentation, network passwords, and introductions to key people—all that is needed to learn effectively. Without these basics, workers waste a tremendous amount of time trying to become more proficient on the job.

Shoshana Zuboff writes, “Learning is the new form of labor.” This is certainly true, but every major change brings unintended consequences. The problem of learning overload in high-skilled jobs is going to get worse, given advances in technology, the increased availability of knowledge, and the relentless drive for performance improvements. The failure to address this phenomenon will have costly impacts: increased risk of burnout, reduced productivity, and time wasted on the wrong tasks.

Author: David DeLong helps leaders build smarter workforces. He is a speaker and consultant and coauthor of The Executive Guide to High-Impact Talent Management.