A common complaint by employees is that their organizations are too bureaucratic. As an employee of a state university, it seems that nothing we do escapes the need to complete some form or provide some justification. Although there is certainly a purpose to our bureaucratic procedures, sometimes it seems that they get in the way of our jobs. For that reason, bureaucracy can be stressful.
What Is Bureaucracy?
When people talk about bureaucracy, they mean the policies and practices that control and limit what employees can do. The purpose is to assure that employee actions are ethical, legal, and make sense. This largely involves the completion of forms to document and justify what you want to do. At a university, the best example is the Institutional Review Board or IRB that oversees research on human subjects. This board is tasked with assuring that ethical and legal research procedures are used that minimize risk to subjects who participate. However, the bureaucratic procedure for approval to conduct even an innocuous anonymous survey requires completion of a 30-40 page application and uploading of multiple documents. There are very specific requirements for formatting and where information is inserted so it can take several iterations of submission and revision until the form is correct. While the purpose is clearly important, it is applied using a bureaucratic approach.
Bureaucracy Can Be Stressful Because It Requires Effort
By controlling employee actions, bureaucracy can be stressful for employees. This is because of three side effects that are frustrating and stressful.
- Bureaucracy is an organizational constraint. Organizational constraints are conditions and practices at work that make it difficult or impossible to perform the job. Inadequate resources (not enough supplies) and interruptions by other people are examples. Bureaucratic demands can also be constraints that interfere with getting the job done. The IRB application process, for example, requires several hours to complete, and it can be a month or more until approval is granted. This means each research project is delayed.
- Bureaucracy as an illegitimate task. Some tasks that people are asked to do are things that they feel should not be their jobs or should not be done at all. For example, many secretaries do not feel that it should be their jobs to do personal services for their bosses, such as picking up their children from school or taking their clothes to the laundry. Often employees asked to complete forms or follow certain procedures feel that it should not be their jobs or that it is unnecessary.
- Bureaucracy increases workload. The demands for additional paperwork requires time that is added to the main work of an employee. This can quickly add up if each time the employee needs to get something done, extra time is required to gain approvals.
These three side effects combine to make a job more stressful. They can require spending extra time to get things done, and can be frustrating.
What Can Organizations Do?
Organizations need to have controls to be sure that employees perform their jobs in an ethical and legal way, and to be sure that money is not spent inappropriately or stolen. That said, many organizations seem to give little thought to how they implement their controls, and fail to consider that controls require resources and have costs. There are five questions that need to be asked about every bureaucratic procedure.
- What Is the cost? Employee time has value and time spent completing a form or a justification should be considered overhead. And the costs can add up very quickly. Say you implement a new procedure with your sales force that takes 1 hour to complete, and you have 100 salespeople who must do it once each week. If the employee compensation costs are $50/hour, the cost is around $250,000 per year. And this does not include the value of lost productivity, in this case selling.
- What is the potential cost of not having the procedure? How often would the problem occur, and what will it cost when it happens. Suppose your sales force make an average of 2 ordering errors per week with an average cost of $50 in shipping per error, and you have 100 salespeople. The annual cost would be $500,000 for ordering errors.
- How does the cost of the procedure compare to the cost of not having it? In this sales force example, the investment in resources of implementing the procedure is half of the savings—a pretty good return on investment. However, this is not always the case, and I have seen organizations implement controls that required a great deal of employee time because of an error that occurred once and cost a few thousand dollars. This is the equivalent of spending more on an item to insure it than it would cost to replace it.
- Is our procedure effective? Any bureaucratic procedure needs to actually control what it is designed to control, and that is not always the case. Completing a form or getting someone to approve something is no guarantee that an employee will not cut corners or do something improper.
- Is there a more efficient way? I have seen organizations purchase solutions that are inefficient in the time it takes for employees to use them. One of the biggest complaints with bureaucracy is not that the employer is implementing controls, but that the control is overly cumbersome and takes too much effort. If you consider that often solutions are not necessarily effective, employees can become cynical and reach the conclusion that the bureaucracy is a total waste of time.
Exerting controls over organizational processes is necessary to assure that employees behave in an ethical and legal manner. Far too often those controls are implemented in an inefficient manner that makes it difficult for employees to do their jobs effectively. When that happens, bureaucracy can be stressful.