Managers cannot wash their hands of employees’ routine tasks

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Business People Working In a Conference Room

Most people can identify their top priority at work. Generally, it will be the part of the job that is most productive for their employer: for a merger and acquisitions banker, it could be landing a big deal for a client; for a lorry driver, the punctual delivery of an important consignment; for a hospital doctor or nurse, giving vital treatment to a patient.

But every job is ringed with secondary tasks – the routine but critical stuff covered by codes and guidelines. If such chores are neglected, the consequences may undermine overall success. New research suggests tired workers in demanding jobs start giving up doing those small, but vital, tasks remarkably quickly.

Technology can, of course, take over some basic chores altogether. It is no longer necessary to engage an additional auditor to cross-check the balance sheet, or to insist airline pilots handle every tiny aspect of monitoring and flying their aircraft.

Automated solutions are not as reassuring as they seem, however. Peter Thiel, the entrepreneur, wrote in the FT that computers “excel at efficient data processing but struggle to make basic judgments”. In other words, humans are not redundant. But the flesh-and-blood workers who remain now have greater responsibility for more important tasks. If companies pile more work on to them, these weary employees could inadvertently plunge them into disaster.

It is a truism that a tired worker is less productive than a fresh one. But researchers at Wharton and Kenan-Flagler business schools have shown that compliance with routine tasks can fall away within one heavy shift.

Their study’s focus was hand hygiene, healthcare’s mundane but powerful weapon against cross-infection. Such is the importance of sanitisation – when done thoroughly, it can reduce infection by the MRSA “superbug” by 95% – that hospitals have started to monitor compliance, using electronic tags in sanitisers and workers’ badges. Each time a member of staff skips the sanitiser, the omission is logged.

The extraordinarily rich anonymised information from such a system is a treasure trove for big data researchers such as Wharton’s Katherine Milkman. Analysing 13.8m “unique hand hygiene opportunities” for more than 4,000 staff at 35 hospitals, she and her co-authors found that over a 12-hour shift compliance by an average staff member fell by 8.5 percentage points. Lax handwashing, they suggest, could be costing $25bn annually in treatment of unnecessary infection in the US – and leading to 70,000 needless deaths.

As Prof Milkman explained to me, the fact that intense work makes it harder to do less important tasks could have profound implications in other walks of life. The study points out that “these deviations pose a threat to the wellbeing of organisations, employees and clients . . . because such violations can reduce the quality of products produced and services provided as well as creating an unsafe work environment”.

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Suddenly, it is a little clearer why the exhausted M&A banker skips parts of the ethical code her bank insists on, or why the tired lorry driver jumps the lights to make it to the depot on time. The work could offer clues about how to make sure the steeplejack always checks his harness, even on the final ascent of the skyscraper, and the weary journalist reads through her story for possible errors on deadline.

The good news is that while the ability to carry out these simple tasks deteriorates swiftly, employers can restore it rapidly by, say, giving workers longer breaks between shifts. Another positive conclusion is that in this case technology seems to help. Monitoring compliance electronically, for all its Orwellian implications, does improve the overall frequency of handwashing.

Hand hygiene is, however, one of those secondary tasks that will by definition always be manual. In other areas, the assumption is that machines have cleared the way for professionals to concentrate on their primary productive job. But there is evidence, highlighted in a recent New Yorker article about pilots’ reliance on their autopilot, that some skills may atrophy as workers become complacent about technological back-up.

I think the new research adds a further twist: if technology makes some vital tasks that used to be central seem routine, workers may also start to neglect them as the day drags on – with potentially dire consequences.

andrew.hill@ft.com Twitter: @andrewtghill

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014

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