Increasing productivity in physical labor jobs
May 6, 2021 5:46 AM   Subscribe

I lead a team whose success requires energetically loading and unloading 50 lb items from delivery vehicles. Because of my personal history, I have great anxiety around telling people they need to move their bodies faster. But, employee physical effort is a key issue preventing us from reaching our goals. Please offer me perspective on this.

Ultimately, if employees aren't able to reach daily productivity targets, then the job isn't right for them and vice versa.

But at the day-to-day, i see performance that isn't sufficient.

This isn't me watching them from the supervisors office - I'm out there with them, doing as much work myself as I expect them to do. Some people go at a faster pace than others, and I believe it's my job to set the pace, working as hard as I want to see them work.

I've got some blocks that I'd love advice on:

1. I am clumsy and slow. When I was a kid I heard it from my parents. As a young adult I lost several jobs for not being energetic enough. This all comes flooding back when I think about telling employees they won't hit their numbers unless they move and lift faster.

2. There is opportunity for back injury, often caused by loading product carelessly. After 6 months on the job, I've started to feel like my body is slowly being worn down. I worry I'm telling employees they need to sacrifice their body to hit the numbers.

I'm working with my bosses to create performance targets, safety programs, training, etc. But, my gut reaction is getting in the way.

So - can you please offer me outside perspective and advice on physical labor? Can you help me see things from a different perspective?
posted by rebent to Work & Money (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
After 6 months on the job, I've started to feel like my body is slowly being worn down.

As a social worker who has worked with far too many disabled adults from jobs just like this, you are doing to much and you need to be extraordinarily careful.
posted by AlexiaSky at 5:52 AM on May 6, 2021 [47 favorites]

Have you looked into mechanical assistance? Some like this:
posted by at at 5:59 AM on May 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

If working at the pace required to meet the performance goals is going to injure/wear down people w/o preexisting conditions, the issue is the performance goals, not your management/leadership.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 6:06 AM on May 6, 2021 [125 favorites]

Given that you are experiencing physical symptoms after only six months working at the pace expected by your employer, it sounds like your current expectations ARE too high, at least for someone with your body.

Assuming you don't have the power to change these "productivity targets" and still want to work there, I think you should lean into the understanding that you and your team ARE being sacrificed to capitalism. Reduce your anxiety by recognizing that the expectations are unreasonable, and you all are suffering under them because of your bosses, and that some of you will be able to stay at it longer before your bodies wear out. When you talk to people about it, tell them that you know it's BS, but they should find a better job before they permanently damage themselves. Be on their side by encouraging them to escape.
posted by metasarah at 6:10 AM on May 6, 2021 [21 favorites]

It seems to me that the outline of the situation is as follows:

First, you want your team to hit its targets. You have some buy-in on those targets; you worked with your bosses to set them.

Second, you want your team to have good working conditions. You recognize that the work is damaging to your body, and you know it must be to theirs as well.

These two points of view are in conflict, because in order to hit those targets, you need to ask your team to damage their bodies.

You are in a classic middle-management bind. As I see it, there are two ways to resolve this conflict. Either you accept that you are making that ask of your team and do it anyway because it's your job, or you find a way to not make that ask. The way forward is going to depend in large part on how your bosses view the situation. If they are willing to commit more resources to your team, you could explore mechanical aids as at mentioned above. You could also ask for more breaks, or reduced productivity targets, or more laborers to share the load.

What you call "blocks" strike me as empathy, and not something that should be gotten around, necessarily. Larry David Syndrome is right; if the working conditions seem objectionable to you, then they probably are. Start there.
posted by dbx at 6:10 AM on May 6, 2021 [25 favorites]

50# is a lot of weight to lift over and over again. It's beyond most people's abilities to maintain a brisk pace at work like that for any length of time. Finding better methods and tools to accomplish the work is far preferable to pushing your workers harder.
posted by jon1270 at 6:11 AM on May 6, 2021 [12 favorites]

Are people working individually, or in teams? Two people, each taking one end of a 50lb item might be much less stress.

You might also look at re-designing the packaging of the items to better aid workers. For example, says it's 50lb bags of dog food or hog feed or fertilizer, if the underside of the bag is explicitly built to support the contents, and a grommet is added at each corner, I could clip on cables, face away from the load, and lift with just my thighs. And let's say the items are cases of wine - if I know the box will not rip open from the bottom, and the box has cut-out handles, I can lift while keeping my arms in a more leveraged, less extended position.
posted by at at 6:12 AM on May 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

You mention safety programs; have you evaluated whether what you're asking of employees falls within NIOSH guidelines for lifting? Info on those is reference here - actual guidelines are on the CDC website, which appears to be down at the moment...
posted by mosst at 6:16 AM on May 6, 2021 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Folks, please trust me when I say I have the process and guilt side sorted. I need advice on how to have a healthy manager mindset. At the end of the day, even with excellent processes, I still need to tell people to perform at a certain level, and hold them accountable when they do not. I believe my performance standards are much lower than at other locations across the country because of my own issues. I believe I am harming my employees chance of success and promotion by not holding them to the same standard. And, while some people are not cut out for the pace and effort, we make that clear during the hiring process.
posted by rebent at 6:29 AM on May 6, 2021

It is not possible to have a healthy mindset while requiring people to damage themselves. It's just not. You can do all sorts of mental gymnastics to justify it to yourself, but it isn't ever going to be healthy.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:35 AM on May 6, 2021 [76 favorites]

I found myself in a similar position and eventually. After seeing an employee lose their livelihood due to injury (while attempting to meet efficiency) I personally came to the conclusion that it was immoral to be participating in that system. Wrestling with the dissonance of this situation solidified my the idea that management is the enemy to the worker. There are no good managers, and that is because managers cannot be good if they're placed in a situation to spend other folks labor for a nonhuman entity's benefit. Your ethical mileage may vary, and that is completely fine.

The people you work with need a union. They need to be equal participants in what benchmarks are being set. They need the ability to dictate the terms of their labor, to negotiate against what the business wants (because these efficiency metrics are often not what the business NEEDS, but what the business DESIRES; and even that is probably too much personification of a business than is healthy).

Like, Mondragon moves around heavy boxes, for fucking sure. How do they do it? How do worker owned collectives manage this kind of physical labor and still turn a profit? Is there a way to cycle workers out of that role and cross train them to do other duties?
posted by furnace.heart at 6:46 AM on May 6, 2021 [19 favorites]

Can you help me see things from a different perspective?

You are asking people to work unsafe (repetitive strain injuries are still preventable injuries) to meet business goals. There isn't anyway to square this circle to make your instincts that this is bad turn into an instinct that this is ok.
posted by Mitheral at 6:51 AM on May 6, 2021 [26 favorites]

What people are trying to tell you is that nobody is cut out for that pace and effort in the long term. Manual labor is like that.

Now, for what it's worth, I don't think there's such a thing as a healthy manager mindset because management under this phase of capitalism--maybe all of them, but this is the only one on which I can speak confidently--is inherently terrible. (Lest you think I'm beating up on you, I am also in management.) Effective management involves disregarding the humanity of others for the sake of the profits above you, and your own salary.

So the reason you're struggling to arrive at "a healthy manager mindset" is because you're a decent human being who respects human beings, and you should be absolutely proud and satisfied that you can't warp your brain into management mode. There's a reason all of this is causing you to flash back to cruel and abusive people from your childhood: because you are stuck back in a cycle of cruelty and abuse.

Start thinking of yourself as another worker, instead. Advocate for them like you're advocating for yourself. You have a voice that they do not, to start pushing for injury reduction, to push for competitor analysis like furnace.heart describes above.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 6:52 AM on May 6, 2021 [14 favorites]


Source: dozens of heavy physical labor jobs in my life.
posted by spitbull at 6:52 AM on May 6, 2021 [7 favorites]

What jon1270 said. 50 pounds is within a pound of the NIOSH recommended weight limit for lifts performed under ideal conditions, which "energetically" loading and unloading items from vehicles are absolutely not.

Applications Manual for the Revised NIOSH Lifting Equation
posted by flabdablet at 6:53 AM on May 6, 2021 [20 favorites]

"Don't participate in this capitalist oppression and the destruction of workers" is easy to say. It's not easy to do when this is the job you got after a year of unemployment in the middle of a global pandemic.

Make sure you have a lift belt. Encourage your management to provide them and if they don't, encourage your team to buy them for themselves. Make sure they take their breaks. Make sure they know you are leading by example and that you expect similar effort from every team member. See if you can turn the goals into daily team goals so you are less uncomfortable calling out individuals but still holding people to account for productivity.

And encourage everyone including yourself to get a different job as soon as they can.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:56 AM on May 6, 2021 [22 favorites]

I agree with everyone else, that you shouldn't be asking your employees to sacrifice their health. But that's not the question you're asking, so... just tell them what you said in your comment. Shit rolls downhill, and while you're satisfied with their productivity, other people up the chain might not be, and that could affect their future prospects. Then let them decide. Given the choice between being able to hold my kids and a few extra dollars (at least some of which, it should be noted, will probably be spent on opioid painkillers to help them deal with their broken-down bodies), I know what I'd choose. "Success" means different things to different people, remember.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:19 AM on May 6, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Hi brother!

I've been in this EXACT same situation when I worked at a summer camp. We had to set up 50 campsites with 50 tents and cots each, and they were heavy military ones. We had about 50 people and 20 hours to get it done. Doing the math, that's unloading, carrying, and setting up 50 lb cots, heavy tent poles, and tents. That's roughly 10 per hour per person. And motivating all those 14-18 year olds to do this heavy lifting was tough work! And, we had to get it done!

Over the years, I learned a few things.

First, measuring performance and rewarding improvement is pretty huge. What we did, was time how fast the team could complete a campsite, and try to improve on that time. Of course there were different factors involved, but it made it a bit of a game. It gave us something to think about and work toward, and turned on a competitive drive. People started looking for ways to improve processes without prompting. A financial bonus would be nice, but it can't come (only) from you, because otherwise, it would be inhumane to not give them that bonus if they don't reach their goals. The best bosses were those not afraid to spend their own money, rather than get reimbursed through proper channels for this kind of reward. If your workload varies, you can measure time-per-50lb-weight or whatever. That's what we did.

Second, make sure people's needs are met. While it could be annoying, taking a frequent water break and making sure people are fed do a LOT to improve performance in manual labor. If combined with #1, people will self-limit their break time because they themselves are anxious to improve. Even if not combined with #1, everyone will be happier anyway.

Third, depending on the size of your operation, designating lieutenants (or whatever, assistant managers) to help manage pods of employees can help with making at least SOME people care as much as you do about results. They will be equally frustrated by slow people though with even fewer ways to improve performance, so you have to manage that. But, the existence of the lieutenants means at least one or two people more who care enough to drive forward.

Fourth, one year, we learned that for some reason, while 50 people took 20 hours to do all the work, 2 people could do all the work in about 50 hours. Apparently the bottle necks of doing the work weren't on labor and speed, but moving the trucks around to deliver stuff. Also, those 2 people weren't particularly hard workers, but they still got it done. It took us about 8 years to try this new strategy and it worked great. Consider radically changing the proportions and expectations of employees to see if there's low hanging fruit in how the job gets done. If people are ever "in each others way" during a task, that means that the additional people aren't improving workflow as much as you'd think. Like seriously, if you currently have 10 people taking an hour to unload a truck, how long would it take 2 people? Is it only 3 hours? Then with a rotating schedule, can you make it fair and balanced still?


A lot of people just don't care about big obscure objectives. They will work at their pace, no matter what happens. The amount you stress over their speed or efficiency doesn't effect their performance in the least. Usually, those people don't care about "missing out on advancement/promotion" as you mention in your rationale. And usually, these people are right. These goals, to get things done, never ACTUALLY matter. There's usually little actual advancement or promotion to be had. In the grand scheme of things, even if we set up our tents in 40 hours instead of 20, it would have been fine. The customer experience would have been slightly worse. If you manage to motivate people to unload things 10% faster, and pay 10% less for those 3 hours of work with 10 employees, that's only saving 3 man-hours for all that stress. If that 3 hour metric is what's putting your business model underwater, the employee speed and motivation is the least of your problem.

So, what I wish I'd done, is all of the above, but then stand back, and be a lazy foreman. Appreciate the hard work. Drink beer on the job. Know you were made a lieutenant so you would care slightly more and work harder, and have very small leverage to motivate people further. Don't break your back, and don't ask others to break theirs. Allow frequent breaks. Try to enroll others in goals, but listen to what others actually care about. Maybe it's going home early. Maybe it's doing a different aspect of the job. Maybe they just want to hear they did a good job, even if they took longer this week because it's raining. Maybe the fastest squad gets to choose the music tomorrow. Maybe everyone works better with headphones.

When you try your hardest to improve performance, people notice. People don't like being asked to work harder. People know you are prioritizing the company over them and their livelihood. I wish I could go back and be a boss that people wanted to stand around, not the one people would hide from to avoid getting additional labor.

PS. have you considered a special rack you load 100 items onto INSIDE THE TRUCK, then you forklift it out of the truck all at once? Or, can you just leave the items in the truck and charge them there, with a few extension cables?
posted by bbqturtle at 7:22 AM on May 6, 2021 [28 favorites]

Best answer: I didn't touch on one thing, and that is training. You mention hurting can come from careless unloading/loading. Have you researched and coached everyone on the proper, safe way to load/unload, to minimize carelessness? Could you pay a few hundred bucks to have an occupational therapist come in and look at the task, and advise on the best practices for the task? That could help a lot with the health/safety concerns.

Also.... conveyor belts!?
posted by bbqturtle at 7:25 AM on May 6, 2021 [10 favorites]

A few thoughts.

1. Unless it is in your job description, stop taking on a full share of the manual labor. First-line supervisors of manual labor always do less because supervision is work too. You are not adding to your authority, credibility or influence with your reports - if anything, you're undermining it, because a real boss wouldn't have to be on the line full time.

2. You need to make a practical and moral assessment of the level of production which is required, and which is safe (with available protective equipment, etc.). Get comfortable that the required level is below the threshold where it becomes unsafe.

3. Ask for whatever tools you can be given to incentivize performance immediately- bonuses, raises, comp time, etc. It's a very tight job market out there and a lot of your workers are not really afraid of being fired, and they couldn't give a whit about being disciplined. They also are not thinking about long-term career progression.

4. Now, get over yourself. Use the tools you have to demand the required (and safe-with-a-margin) level of performance without regard to how it makes you feel. Your team has NO ego investment at all in your leadership and will not think the less of you, to say the least of themselves, if you ask them to do their job.
posted by MattD at 7:27 AM on May 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

You may want to mention to your management that this could lead to increased workers comp payouts as well as possible OSHA violations if you get reported for creating an unsafe workplace.
posted by ananci at 8:15 AM on May 6, 2021 [5 favorites]

Gather your team together to discuss the targets and how you might be able to safely meet them, what would help, what the barriers are and so on.

Report barriers and requests upwards to senior management.
posted by knapah at 8:19 AM on May 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

You need to hire more people. People can only work as hard as their bodies will let them. It's up to you to determine how many bodies are needed. It's not up to you to set a quota on what a human body can do.
posted by bleep at 8:54 AM on May 6, 2021 [7 favorites]

I'll leave the ethical question aside.

My first question would be - have you had an opportunity to visit and evaluate the other sites? Two reasons for this: 1. You might learn a lot from how other supervisors are succeeding. 2. You might actually discover that you have a systemic issue that keeps your site's performance at a different rate.

Story time!

When I started in my current job Team A was filling Program X 4 months before the start date. Team B was filling Program X the week before the start date. On the surface of it, you would guess that Team B was just not proactive, not following up on leads, etc. The internal narrative was that the lead of Team B was just not great.

What was actually happening: Team A was in a city where ALL the spots for everything fill up within the first 3 hours of registration. Team B was in a city where the programs never filled up. So in the first city parents were trained to react fast. That was the critical difference.

We could change things - offer early bird discounts etc. - but we still have a gap in member behaviour that a single team cannot fix. They just can't. So we adjusted their deadlines.

So you need to understand where the performance differences are coming from before you assume that it's not you drilling your team to move faster. If you can, look at (at a guess):
- start times
- end times
- breaks
- physical constraints - distance, awkward layouts, slow loading bay doors...I have no idea but maybe you do?
- gear like the aforementioned lift belts
- staffing - age, overtime, whether people leave faster at the other locations (hiring costs) etc.
Maybe it's as simple as they always have one extra person - maybe the supervisor isn't lifting and is just walking around solving problems that are persisting for your team.

Also setting the pace personally is not a good way to go about this. Thinking that your team is just going to follow you at your pace is not going to work - you will break first. Also, it's not measurable or consistent nor does it allow them to tweak their own work.

You need to give people measurable goals - "okay guys, we did X units before the break. Between this break and lunch we need to do Y units." You can't "lead by example" your way out of this. (Nor should you.)

I kind of hope you report back for what happened, of course you don't have to.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:08 AM on May 6, 2021 [10 favorites]

This is exactly what sea chanties are for.

(I also raise the same ethical considerations as many above)
posted by bilabial at 9:37 AM on May 6, 2021

Best answer: I have worked in a warehouse loading and unloading boxes, skids, etc. We were under a daily time pressure because of delivery schedules. I was the temporary manager. Came in from the outside into the role it sounds like you are in now.

It is really this simple: Either they pull their weight (pun intended) or they don't. If they don't they are counseled on what they need to do to keep the job. If they still don't get it or cannot do it, we terminate their employment.

The key to doing it that way is setting expectations on the way in. When we hired people, we would explain to them our expectations/metrics. We would remind them often in the first few weeks. Then, it is either perform or not.

We went through a decent amount of people. The bottom third was turning over a lot. The top third had been there for a while and the middle were at the point of moving into the top tier or falling back into the bottom tier.

I can safely say that I have never been as tired as I was after a days work as I was for that year I worked there. If you cannot keep up so you cannot ask others to do more, respectfully, you are not right for the job. If you are willing to manage others to work faster than you are physically capable, then there is hope.

Fwiw, we did some small but meaningful things when the team was exceeding goals. Things like buying them all lunch or giving them all $50 gift cards. We also hired based on physical ability. Our interview questions were not mentally strenuous other than trying to determine their willingness and ability to follow directions and some spacial relationship questions because stacking pallets with the exact maximum amount of product to fit size requirements of Amazon FBA limitations is an art as well as a science. We never asked about much of their background other than if they had other similar jobs. We got some of them on recommendations from their Parole Officer. Best workers we had.
posted by AugustWest at 9:49 AM on May 6, 2021 [10 favorites]

While doing the labor with them may not be optimal boss behavior, it is good human behavior. The awareness you got that this pace damages your body may be what saves you from damaging several other people's.
posted by away for regrooving at 9:54 AM on May 6, 2021 [9 favorites]

physical warm-ups, stretching at the beginning of the day

*** social activities *** so you can _listen to them_ and let them know that you actually care.

team song, maybe two team songs, to be sung whenever the team feels like it (don't overprescribe or overcontrol this, but do set some guidelines to avoid harassment issues)

massages, either regularly for meeting performance goals or as a reward

become very very smart about avoiding damage and educate everyone so they know you actually care

get treatment _now_ for anybody who is already dealing with issues. Find a way to do this without making those individuals make themselves known to management.

Finally, and this is an idea I've been turning over in my mind for a while, is it at all possible to rotate people through less physically demanding jobs within the company? Or just your location?
posted by amtho at 10:34 AM on May 6, 2021 [4 favorites]

easy. set some quotas. nobody will do 'one more' over. and fire those who can't make it. - jeff b.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:41 AM on May 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Another voice for hiring more people as an option (depending on the setup; I read the highlighted comment about rejigging workloads).
posted by lokta at 1:50 PM on May 6, 2021

An outsider's view on how to improve things?
Healthy for them? Have much more reasonable goals and a company that actually follows proper safety procedure, which is unlikely, in all honesty.
Healthy for you? Same as above... or find a different job.

And the people above you? They ought to just be grateful right now they even have people willing to work at all.
posted by stormyteal at 4:05 PM on May 6, 2021

I worked in a big company with lots of dock doors, lots of speed, lots of stress. Management didn't give a single damn when my workload increased 50%. No thanks, no notice, no bonuses, no recognitions at all. Much less pay raises and promotion. Is your job the same? Management promises a way out of the bottom of the pyramid but never delivers?
posted by Jacen at 5:31 PM on May 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Speaking as someone who works & supervises in a job that has a large physical labor component (although in an industry that is not very "corporate" or formally structured):

I'm out there with them, doing as much work myself as I expect them to do. Some people go at a faster pace than others, and I believe it's my job to set the pace, working as hard as I want to see them work.

Yeah, nobody likes a supervisor that just sits on their ass and points at stuff and yells. Being That Guy is a fast track to demoralizing your team, and "lead by example" is definitely a valuable tool in your manager kit.

OTOH, the "supervisor" position exists for a reason - don't you have supervisory stuff to do? Organize the stuff before it goes into the truck? Make sure the stuff coming off the truck goes to the right place? Guide how the stuff gets packed in the truck? (This is a lot of what I do as a supervisor.) You say you have the process sorted, but honestly I've got some doubts. I think it's worth examining whether you may be contributing to the bottleneck or slow speeds by neglecting certain supervisor aspects of your job because you're too focused on working alongside your crew doing exactly what they're doing.

And even if you don't have these sort of concrete duties - well, you're a supervisor. People will resent a supervisor that does nothing, but as long as you're willing to pitch in when necessary folks are generally OK with the supervisor doing less physical work than they do, as long as you're doing stuff that's useful - guiding people so they don't injure themselves, keeping an eye on the speed and efficiency and knowing what has to be done to hit goals, making sure they get their mandated breaks and water & etc, pairing or teaming up workers so strengths balance weaknesses (Guy A is strong as a bull but doesn't have the best eye-hand coordination, Guy B is not as strong but has a great eye for steering the pallet jacks, put them together), maybe just a level of "cheerleading" (like others have suggested, try to use positive reinforcement to get your team to work faster.)

1. I am clumsy and slow. When I was a kid I heard it from my parents. As a young adult I lost several jobs for not being energetic enough. This all comes flooding back when I think about telling employees they won't hit their numbers unless they move and lift faster.

On a personal level, I have found yoga and Tai Chi and various warm-up/cool-down stretches (give or take the more mystical aspects) very useful in becoming more aware of how my body works and moves. I really think this could help with the feelings of clumsiness and speed.

After 6 months on the job, I've started to feel like my body is slowly being worn down.

The above should also help with this. And, as counter-intuitive as it may sound to do more physical stuff in your time off, doing some other workout stuff (weightlifting, bodyweight exercises, Pilates, etc.) will help build muscle and endurance, so you'll feel better.

I mean, in the larger scheme of things, manual labor is wearing your body down, and all you can do is try to minimize that. TBH it kind of sounds like you haven't done much physical labor in a while if ever, and in your efforts to not be an asshole boss you're doing too much all at once, and your body isn't used to it. This may improve over time as your body adjusts to the new normal, but doing various physical things outside of work will help speed up this adjustment and prevent back injuries & general wear and tear.

Like I said, I don't work in a very formally organized industry, so I can't speak to developing processes, but I'll Nth the points above about having back support braces and better training for workers on how not to injure themselves and possibly more mechanical assistance.

I believe I am harming my employees chance of success and promotion by not holding them to the same standard.

And further seconding the point that for lots of people working these sorts of jobs, advancement and promotion are not necessarily motivators - it's just a job, not a career, they just want to put in their 8 hours and collect a paycheck and forget about the job when they're not on the clock. Which is totally fine. You kinda just need to let go of this worry.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:56 AM on May 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

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