Over the last year, stress and anxiety have soared. Remote work brought along a host of new challenges. But these experiences also brought more open conversations around what was once considered a taboo workplace topic, mental health. In fact, our 2021 Workplace Place Learning Trends Report saw a four-digit increase across anxiety and stress management skills. 

One way to prioritize your employees’ mental health at work is by addressing a hidden stressor, illegitimate tasks. A leading cause of anxiety and depression in the workplace, illegitimate tasks are any task where an employee thinks to themselves, “I shouldn’t have to do this.” Illegitimate tasks are often identifiable by two traits:

  1. The task is unreasonable: An employee faced with an illegitimate task they find unreasonable might say to themselves, “this task falls outside my role.” 
  2. The task is unnecessary: A task may be illegitimate when an employee finds it unnecessary to their and the company’s goals. For example, they might say: “There has to be a better way,” “This could’ve been prevented,” or “I’m not sure what purpose this even serves.”

These irrelevant or unnecessary tasks lead to additional stress and breed resentment, impacting the employee’s performance and team morale. 

4 ways to address illegitimate tasks

As anyone who leads a team knows, being a people manager can be a stressful job. But, it’s the people managers who are crucial in helping employees combat the stresses of illegitimate tasks. And, managers are just as much at risk of burnout from illegitimate tasks as their employees are. According to London School of Economics research, illegitimate tasks affect managers just as much, if not more. 

Udemy instructor and Harvard Business Review contributor Deborah Grayson Riegel says these tips on addressing illegitimate tasks can be used for managers to employees or be adapted by employees to speak with their managers about the illegitimate tasks they find on their plates. 

Here are four ways both managers can talk about illegitimate tasks.

  1. Acknowledge their point of view: Demonstrate basic empathy. Put yourself in your employee’s shoes, and use statements like, “I can see why you’d feel that way” and “I understand how that can be frustrating.” It’s essential for them to feel like they can be open with you about why these tasks are frustrating. 
  2. Offer transparent context of the tasks: Make it more evident why this task is necessary. Be transparent too. If this task results from a problem that could’ve and should have been prevented, acknowledge and validate that. 
  3. Share your tricky tasks: Nothing brings colleagues together quite like commiserating with each other. Talk about your own experiences and how you approach less than pleasant tasks that can help everyone feel like they’re in this together.
  4. Offer frequent appreciation: The number one factor to help people get through illegitimate tasks is offering regular appreciation and positive feedback. If you feel like you don’t give out enough casual praise, try it! There’s also nothing wrong with asking your manager for appreciation as well.

Managers must make mental health a priority

To prevent stress and burnout from permeating your team, validate your team’s feelings about illegitimate tasks. No one wants to suffer through these hidden stressors alone. Communication is key to help employees manage their workloads and find working at your company a positive experience. The four tips mentioned here can help alleviate these stressors. 

For more ideas on prioritizing mental well-being in the workplace, take Deborah’s course, Talking to Your Employees About Stress at Work.