Overload Harms Workers and Productivity



The way we work is not sustainable. Sherwin knows this well. He has 20 years of experience as a skilled information technology (IT) professional and is one of the many professionals and managers we interviewed in a Fortune 500 company we’ll call TOMO.

Sherwin estimates he works about 70 hours per week. He starts work with calls at 5 a.m., pauses to get his kids ready and off to school, works a full day, prepares dinner and supervises their homework, and then routinely works, at home, until midnight. The long hours and intense pace are perhaps not surprising given the managers he reports to. Sherwin’s manager, Tanay, describes himself as a “super workaholic” and says his own boss (who sits two levels above Sherwin on the organizational chart) pushes teams so hard that he is “trying to get blood from a rock.”

Sherwin is dedicated to his job and often excited about it. But despite appreciating much about his job, Sherwin knows the way he works is toxic. He recognizes that “never being able to get [all] the work done—[takes] a tremendous toll on me health-wise.” His work patterns make it harder for him to take good care of himself. 

“You’re staying up late, you’re eating,” and “the last thing in my mind was to get up and work out. Too tired.” In fact, Sherwin recently had a heart attack, luckily a fairly minor one. Sherwin was out of work for about four weeks to recover from this health crisis, but it has had a lasting impact. As he says, “I’m looking at things a lot differently in my life,” and he hopes to work differently to take better care of himself.

Too Much To Do

The way Sherwin works and lives exemplifies the overload—the feeling of having too much to do in too little time—that so many professionals and managers confront today. These employees are privileged in terms of their pay, benefit and the ability to work in clean and comfortable offices. They are generally treated with respect, with their contributions and ideas recognized. These would seem to be “good jobs” in many ways. 

But these professionals and managers find that what had been good jobs have morphed into something more intense and less secure. New communication technologies foster an always-on, always-working culture. Managers and coworkers know they can contact employees anytime, anywhere and they often do reach out before and after official workdays. Moreover, globalization, automation and artificial intelligence make it clear to even the most educated, experienced and skilled workers in a variety of occupations and industries that their jobs are changing radically, and may even disappear. Earnings and benefits are still relatively generous, but there is an increasing price to pay. Good jobs, previously characterized by relative autonomy and security, have become bad, with rising workloads, a sped-up pace and escalating expectations that seem impossible to meet.

Alongside changes tied to new technologies and global competition, U.S. companies are routinely merging, reorganizing, downsizing, even disappearing. This leaves all employees—even skilled professionals and middle managers—unsure whether they will have their jobs next year or even next week. Those who survive layoffs experience even more overload as they attempt to cover the work of their downsized coworkers. The firm resolves to “do more with less,” and employees try frantically to make that happen.

Overload Harms Companies
Our interviews and surveys in TOMO’s IT division demonstrate that overload harms workers. That is probably not a surprise to readers, and it is very clear to the professionals and managers we interviewed. But we also see that overload creates problems for the organization that employs these professionals and managers. Working at breakneck speed means the work product is not as high quality as it could be. The problem is not a lack of talent but a lack of time. Firms that rely on knowledge workers seek to recruit and retain creative people who can innovate. But creativity and innovativeness are simply incompatible with burnout and exhaustion.

A manager explains that the software developers who report to him are frustrated because “different people are pinging them for information” all day. They are interrupted from writing their code because questions come at them via the chat software the company uses. These IT professionals feel “they go through the whole day, the whole week without doing what they were expected to do” during regular work hours, so they work late nights and weekends (like Sherwin) to try to catch up.

New Ways of Work Are Needed

Overload and the clash of old rules with new realities are not private troubles that employees and frontline managers can fix for themselves by getting up earlier, deciding on their own to not read email in the evening, or scaling back on family obligations. Solving these problems requires inventing new ways of working to promote sane and sustainable jobs, fostering effectiveness on the job, and insisting on a higher quality of life for workers of all genders, ages, educational levels, occupations and life stages.

We believe federal safety nets and labor regulations should be updated to address the new intensity and precarity of work, as well as the growing inequality in the United States and elsewhere. But corporations and other employers can also do something about overload. Drawing on our research with an interdisciplinary group of scholars called the Work, Family, and Health Network, we identify creative and practical ways to reshape how work works, which we call a dual-agenda work redesign. Dual-agenda work redesigns prompt employees and managers to look at how work can be changed in ways that benefit employees (and their families) and also benefit the organization. We demonstrate that those changes work well for employees, their families and also the organizations that employ them.

This study establishes that things can change for the better. Innovative initiatives like the one we describe can create a new normal. In that new normal, employees have greater authority to make their own decisions, managers and coworkers recognize and support the realities of life outside of work, and everyone focuses less on when and where the work happens and more on working effectively and efficiently together. Working smarter includes dropping some tasks and meetings and turning off technologies from time to time. The status quo can seem intransigent. But there are ways forward to more sustainable, enjoyable and effective work lives if we have the will, power and imagination to push for that. This is, ultimately, a promising perspective on the future of work.

Originally published on the HRPS blog.




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