Spoon Theory and the Workplace

A spoon for your thoughts

You may be asking yourself, “What do spoons have to do with public service delivery and transformation?” Let me tell you — a whole lot.

The Spoon Theory”, a personal story by Christine Miserandino, is popular among many people dealing with chronic illness. It describes the idea of limited physical and/or mental energy that a person has for daily tasks and activities, using “spoons” as a unit of energy.

While the analogy’s premier purpose was narrow, the Theory creates a common language for speaking about professional burnout, which is wildly common in understaffed and under-resourced organisations across the public sector.

Digging to the heart of it

It is especially useful when we start thinking about capacity as it extends beyond the physical and into the mental. As staff in a workplace are maximised on current projects and responsibilities, organisations consequently lose out on the outputs and outcomes that result from big thinking space, or as we at 4OC like to call it, space to be a ‘Game Changer’.

4OC works with the Game Changer (GC) Index to help client organisations determine the professional proclivities of their staff to improve alignment of people to task, which links to higher productivity and employee satisfaction.

According to the Index, big ideas result from obsessive, imaginary minds that produce, well, big ideas. These ‘Game Changing’ ideas are enabled by Game Changers having the space and time (or to stick with our analogy, the ‘Spoons’) to let their minds wander, and to tinker with the assumptions and the ‘why’ that underpin the current ways of working.

When big thinking like this is stifled, everyone loses. Similarly, encouraging workers to further burn the candle at both ends, using personal Spoons for the professional, is not sustainable and can lead to quiet (or loud) quitting.

Big Spoons

Now, at a system level, whether we are thinking about across society or even across the country, we know that overworking and underpaying may be the result of larger drivers, such as reduced budgets. While system dynamics require more collaboration to fix (something we are working on with UCL!), there are actions that organisations and individuals can take to improve work-life balance.

Recognise your limits

Take note of when your best ideas form, when you feel creative and driven and when you feel less so. Note the time of day, the days of the week, the before and after.

As an organisation, catalogue the internal capabilities and capacity of your staff. We currently work with several organisations in this area, using a range of digital tools and supported by our Change, People and Leadership team. Once you know your shortcomings, work with trusted partners to identify where they can support you to build up competencies and maximise your staff’s Spoons.

Business Process Re-engineering

Create an agreed understanding of the value of Spoons allocated to allowing staff with intimate knowledge of your organisation to develop their Game Changing ideas for organisational transformation. From there, you can reallocate roles and responsibilities to ensure that Game Changers are able to reserve Spoons for big thinking.

Value rest

Breed a culture of trust within your organisation, which allows and encourages people to set their own limits. In addition, build in time for non-work-related bonding activities to remind people that their value within and to your organisation comes from more than their outputs.

One way 4OC does this is with 4OClock releases on Fridays. More importantly, we offer and encourage mental health days, and agile resourcing reallocations when someone expresses the need for time. Exemplify and encourage staff to define their own boundaries, and then commend them for doing so.

While we are all looking for transformative ideas for ourselves and our organisations, we must reserve the Spoons that enable them to be created. That comes from re-prioritising systems thinking and how we allocate our ‘must’ dos from our ‘should’ dos.

Need a bit of help?

For further information about 4OC’s tools, techniques and frameworks, contact us on support@the4oc.com or contact me directly on ariel.dickson@the4oc.com