What is ‘Hamster Wheel Syndrome?’
I discovered ‘Hamster Wheel Syndrome’ about 15 years ago. It’s when you’re busy, and I mean really busy, working so hard and you can’t stop or slow down. Now you’re working to keep up rather than being in control of what you do. Which reduces your effectiveness and your efficiency.
I got the idea for the name hamster wheel syndrome as I had a hamster at the time and there were occasions when she’d get a bit carried away in her wheel, the momentum would get so much it would take over. She ended up running to keep up and would flip out and land with very little finesse in the sawdust. Being curious, I used to watch to work out what caused it to happen. I realised that having put the work in to get the wheel going, it took a lot less effort to keep it going, but on the occasions it took over, then it consumed a lot more effort and concentration to stay in the wheel.
People do it too.
Even more curious I noticed at work that some people seemed to be like hamsters in a wheel; and that things had tipped and they were now in action to keep in the wheel. Their behaviour, choices and decision making were becoming more ineffective. An ever expanding to do list. Going from one meeting straight in to another, and then another. No space to think, breathe, catch up. At times you can hear this in the language someone uses – “I have to do this… I have to complete that…and if I don’t do this then [negative perceived outcome]…and I still have 3 days emails to read…and…and…”
And how in control to you feel? Or are you responding to the system to stay in the system? Do you feel like a hamster in a wheel?
Now when my hamster’s stamina or concentration would fade, she’d flip out of the wheel. In a work context you see people burn out and get stressed out, but prior to that you see their motivation and their productivity drop. Basically you see their energy and concentration levels fall.
As a leader how do you help your staff avoid hamster wheel syndrome?
- Help your staff manage their energy and concentration levels.
- Provide clear priorities – not everything can be urgent or important, there should be a hierarchy. In fact there is a hierachy, but if you’re not clear what it is it’s because the strategy is failing in some way, or communication.
- Reward results and outcomes rather than actions and task completion.
- Role model the behaviour you want to see. And can I suggest that back to back meetings isn’t it. For 80% plus of the people in the company back to back meetings doesn’t allow for reflection, assimilation or action to be taken. They become talking shops with good intentions or a fair ground for people to show pony, neither of which is good for morale or profitability.
You can also increase your resilience and effectiveness as a leader, download our report here.