Education: Downsized, overstressed: today's managers need help

With more work to do, skilled use of time is of the essence. Philip Schofield reports on systems and courses offering quick solutions
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The workload of most managers has recently been greatly increased by "delayering", "downsizing" and other restructuring and cost-cutting measures. Several studies show that this is leading to high levels of stress.

One study found that 80 per cent of a sample of more than 1,300 managers had experienced an increased workload in the past two years, and that more than half always worked in excess of their official hours. The study, Survival of the Fittest, by the Institute of Management (IM) and the Clerical Medical Investment Group, said that "evening work is always or often undertaken by 54 per cent and almost four in 10 often or always work at weekends". It is hardly surprising that "the vast majority of managers find their work stressful". The report says that "over the past two years, 63 per cent of respondents felt their work to be a source of stress".

In a related study, the IM says that: "Managers must learn to prioritise their work to differentiate between those tasks requiring immediate attention and those of a less critical nature. Effective time management - which may necessitate formal training - enables individuals to work at optimum efficiency ... It is equally important to recognise that time should be allocated for life outside the business environment."

Prioritising one's work and organising one's time may sound a simple matter, but in practice it is far from easy. An Institute of Employment Studies report, Defining Management Skills, said, "Managers are engaged in a vast range of activities, many of which are also invisible - such as thinking! These activities are very fragmented, and many tasks may take only a matter of minutes. The pattern of activity varies from job to job, and job holders may also have considerable choice in how they choose to define and carry out their tasks."

Much management time is also spent on coping with unexpected problems. Moreover, an increasing amount of the work managers do is now carried out in multidisciplinary teams, which means that organising managers' time and prioritising their tasks becomes even harder.

Many time management systems and personal organisers are on the market, from the relatively simple Filofax with its wide general applications, through to the business-focused planning and organising tools developed by Time/system International. The latter is perhaps the most thoroughly researched.

Time/system is based in Copenhagen and operates in 26 countries. Its most widely used product is the "Business System", based on an A5-size ring-binder. There is also a software version, TaskTimer for Windows. Time/system products currently have 900,000 active users, 53,000 of them in Britain, and are used in many highly successful companies, including BP, Coca Cola, Exxon, Glaxo, Hewlett Packard, Price Waterhouse, Procter & Gamble, Sony, Texas Instruments, 3M and Unilever.

The Business System is divided into three sections: a "DataBank", a "Time Section" and an "Information" section. The DataBank helps users to set goals and then break these goals down into concrete activities. Users can then work out how long they will need to carry out each activity, determine its priority, and decide when to carry it out. These activities can then be transferred to yearly, monthly and daily plans in the Time Section. The Information section is used to keep addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses, as well as more general reference information such as conversion tables, travel timetables and maps.

Nevertheless, as most managers are well aware, the products offered by all the time management and organiser system providers are often used as no more than glorified diaries or as symbols of executive status - rather than as practical planning, organising and time-management tools.

Unlike some others, the Time/system includes booklets with its Business System which give helpful tips on how to use it, and the thinking behind it. The company also offers training in the use of its systems and the underlying theory. Paul Hudson-Oldnall, the training and consultancy division manager, says that although the system is user friendly, "people who come on to the training programmes are able to put it into context by getting a much broader overview and so get maximum potential from the system itself".

A third of Time/system users have been on a planning system training course of some kind - one in five having been run by the company itself, the rest by other course providers. The company's own are run for clients in-house or in hotels. Open courses are also run in major cities. There is a choice of one- or two-day "time management and personal productivity" courses. Mr Hudson-Oldnall explains:

"The one-day course is an intensive workshop on how to get the most out of the planning system, how to get it up and running, and how to customise it for the use of the individual. The two-day course includes all that, but also goes into more detail about personal goals, project planning, delegation, and how individual personality and work styles impact on time management."

Because planning and time management impact on other activities, the company is now also providing courses in other related topics, such as project planning, managing pressure at work, and group effectiveness.

The key question is: do these planning systems and training programmes lead to measurable productivity improvements? Time/system claims that its products and services "improve efficiency by 20 per cent". Can this be justified? Research suggests that the claims are probably soundly based.

A survey of 5,000 users in 10 countries asked how much "personal efficiency improvement" they estimated they had gained from using Time/system. The average given for the Business system was 25.3 per cent. However, it must be accepted that quantifying "personal efficiency improvements" is very difficult.

Last year a more detailed study was carried out by the Institute for Personnel and Organisational Research, at the Military University of Munich. This found that using the system, after a day's induction, led to improvements in goal-setting, planning, and implementation of plans; a reduction in inefficient working practices; and a range of general benefits including improved time planning and a reduction in personal stress.

A time-management and planning system used well can probably free up to a day a week for the busy manager, but only if care is taken to understand and use a system's potential. Some managers learn to do so on their own; others need to be trained