Fixing the Overload Problem at Work

Companies keep burning out their employees — and promoting ‘balance’ doesn’t help. Work redesign offers a better solution.

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Image courtesy of Neil Webb/theispot.com

The way that companies expect employees to work isn’t working. Despite growing awareness of widespread and chronic overload and its ill effects, companies often expect professionals and managers to be “on” well beyond traditional work hours — attending meetings at night, responding to requests on weekends and during vacations, and monitoring their phones, texts, and emails whenever they are awake.1 Many people become exhausted and burned out struggling to meet such expectations. The result is an overwhelming, demoralizing sense that the demands of work are unrealistic and cannot be met with the resources at hand.

Of course, overload is not restricted to salaried, white-collar workers.2 But we have found that they are acutely susceptible. In our survey of more than 1,000 of these workers in the IT division of TOMO, our pseudonym for a Fortune 500 company generally viewed as a good employer and a decent corporate citizen, 41% of the division’s professionals and 61% of its managers agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that there is “not enough time to get your job done.”3

Escalating work demands and the exhaustion they produce surfaced repeatedly in the 400 interviews we conducted with TOMO employees from 2010 to 2014. For example, Vanessa, a director at the company, told us that she expects her direct reports to “be accessible 24-7, 365 days a year.” If they aren’t going to be available outside working hours, she said, “they need to let me know.”

Jonathon, a manager who reports to Vanessa, shared multiple stories of work encroaching on his home life and volunteer activities. He said he often takes late-night work calls, some of which wake his wife. Despite the success he has attained at work, Jonathon said he is steering his children away from professions like his that are prone to overload. He believes it is an unhealthy and unsustainable way to earn a living.

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References

1. L.A. Perlow, “Sleeping With Your Smartphone: How to Break the 24-7 Habit and Change the Way You Work” (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2012); and E. Reid and L. Ramarajan, “Managing the High-Intensity Workplace,” Harvard Business Review 94, no. 6 (June 2016): 84-90.

2. The 2018 General Social Survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago reveals that 35% of employed Americans agree or strongly agree that there is “too much work to do it well” in their current jobs, up from 27% in 2002 and 2006. This data was retrieved by using “overwork” as the search variable at https://gssdataexplorer.norc.org.

3. For confidentiality and privacy, we have disguised the names of the company and its employees.

4. A. Kaduk, K. Genadek, E.L. Kelly, et al., “Involuntary vs. Voluntary Flexible Work: Insights for Scholars and Stakeholders,” Community, Work & Family 22, no. 4 (2019): 412-442.

5. J. Pfeffer, “Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance — and What We Can Do about It” (New York: HarperCollins, 2018); and D. Schneider and K. Harknett, “Consequences of Routine Work-Schedule Instability for Worker Health and Well-Being,” American Sociological Review 84, no. 1 (February 2019): 82-114.

6. In our TOMO surveys, overload was a stronger predictor of intention to quit than the number of hours an employee worked.

7. As Hazhir Rahmandad and Nelson Repenning found in their study of software developers, unrealistic workloads and fast-paced work lead to stress, distractions, shortcuts, and lower-quality work. This creates a cycle of “destructive firefighting,” with the company falling further behind and producing worse results. See H. Rahmandad and N. Repenning, “Capability Erosion Dynamics,” Strategic Management Journal 37, no. 4 (April 2016): 649-72.

8. STAR was codesigned by our team; colleagues in the Work, Family & Health Network; and Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, who pioneered the Results-Only Work Environment .

9. S.J. Correll, S. Benard, and I. Paik, “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” American Journal of Sociology 112, no. 5 (March 2007): 1297-1338.

10. E.L. Kelly, S.K. Ammons, K. Chermack, et al., “Gendered Challenge, Gendered Response: Confronting the Ideal Worker Norm in a White-Collar Organization,” Gender & Society 24, no. 3 (June 2010): 281-303; and L.A. Perlow and E.L. Kelly, “Toward a Model of Work Redesign for Better Work and Better Life,” Work and Occupations 41, no. 1 (February 2014): 111-134.

11. C.L. Munsch, “Flexible Work, Flexible Penalties: The Effect of Gender, Childcare, and Type of Request on the Flexibility Bias,” Social Forces 94, no. 4 (June 2016): 1567-1591; and C. Goldin, “A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter,” American Economic Review 104, no. 4 (April 2014): 1091-1119.

12. E. Reid, “Embracing, Passing, Revealing, and the Ideal Worker Image: How People Navigate Expected and Experienced Professional Identities,” Organization Science 26, no. 4 (August 2015): 997-1017.

13. L.B. Hammer, E.E. Kossek, W.K. Anger, et al., “Clarifying Work-Family Intervention Processes: The Roles of Work-Family Conflict and Family-Supportive Supervisor Behaviors,” Journal of Applied Psychology 96, no. 1 (January 2011): 134-150; R.A. Karasek and T. Theorell, “Healthy Work: Stress, Productivity and the Reconstruction of Working Life” (New York: Basic Books, 1990); E.L. Kelly, P. Moen, and E. Tranby, “Changing Workplaces to Reduce Work-Family Conflict: Schedule Control in a White-Collar Organization,” American Sociological Review 76, no. 2 (April 2011): 265-290; E.E. Kossek, S. Pichler, T. Bodner, et al., “Workplace Social Support and Work-Family Conflict: A Meta-Analysis Clarifying the Influence of General and Work-Family-Specific Supervisor and Organizational Support,” Personnel Psychology 64, no. 2 (summer 2011): 289-313; and P. Moen, E.L. Kelly, E. Tranby, et al., “Changing Work, Changing Health: Can Real Work-Time Flexibility Promote Health Behaviors and Well-Being?” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 52, no. 4 (December 2011): 404-429.

14. Work redesign strategies have also been tested in other settings. See Kelly et al., “Gendered Challenge, Gendered Response,” 281-303; Perlow, “Sleeping With Your Smartphone”; and L.A. Perlow, C.N. Hadley, and E. Eun, “Stop the Meeting Madness,” Harvard Business Review 95, no. 4 (July-August 2017): 62-69.

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