Research shows that overall work has indeed become considerably more intense since the 1970s. Employees are working faster and harder and are more likely to say they have “too much work to do everything well” than they were in the past. Many report feeling overwhelmed by the demands of their work. This increased load can affect workers in a variety of ways:
- “Just-in-time” scheduling has increased pressure on many service workers to be available for work at any time, regardless of personal or family obligations.
- Many blue-collar and service workers are experiencing a more rapid pace of work due to more sophisticated productivity-tracking technologies.
- White-collar professionals with well-paying jobs often work very long hours—at least 50 hours a week, and sometimes more.
- The rise of the smart phone and other communication technologies have heightened expectations of 24-7 availability for professionals.
Types of Job Demands
Ideally, the demands of work produce a sense of positive challenge and mastery. However, if they are excessive or not balanced by supportive conditions at work, job demands can also become a source of stress and burnout. There are many different types of work demands that may be experienced as excessive, including time demands (such as long work hours and intensive time pressure), mental demands (for instance, tasks requiring complex decision-making or high concentration), emotional demands (such as work that requires high empathy or dealing with difficult emotions like sadness, fear or anger), and physical demands (for example, tasks that require prolonged or intense physical effort or physical risk-taking).
Work Overload and Stress Can Make Employees Sick
Research has shown that high work demands such as long hours or the pressure to work very hard or fast can take a serious toll on employee health and well-being. For instance, long work hours are associated with increased risk of coronary artery disease, stroke and other chronic diseases for workers.
When high workloads, time pressure, and the demand to be “always on” become a routine part of the workday, workers can become chronically stressed which, in turn, can lead to high levels of distress and feeling disengaged from their work (“burnout”). In addition, heavy work demands can impose high levels of stress and work-family conflict on both workers and their families, with cascading effects on worker mental and physical health.
Work Overload and Stress Hurts the Organization
Chronic work-related stress can be costly to employers, too. High and ongoing levels of work stress can diminish productivity by interfering with employees’ ability to sleep, concentrate, make decisions well and function optimally in their work lives. Highly stressed employees are more prone to getting sick, and sick employees are more likely to be absent, to incur higher workers’ compensation and medical costs, to be less productive or unable to work effectively, and eventually, if sick enough, to quit. Even if they don’t become seriously ill, employees who are overworked and burned out are more likely to quit, imposing organizational costs in the form of lost skills, lower productivity, and the time and money needed to recruit and train new staff. One way employers can help alleviate these burdens and costs is to invest in workplace practices that make work more manageable and less chronically stressful. Research has identified several promising practices for identifying and easing excessive work demands and the stress associated with them.
1: Provide Resources to Ease Demands on Employees
Providing workplace resources that reduce the burden of work pressures on existing staff can improve both employee well-being and organizational outcomes.
2: Streamline Work to Reduce Demands
Making work processes more efficient can reduce workloads and improve well-being.
Reducing unnecessary procedures in the work process with a participatory approach, should be used to improve productivity. Workers identify inefficiencies and then test different approaches to streamline the work.
Whatever approach you use to address excessive work demands, the bottom line is that chronic work overload and stress can harm employee health and ultimately be bad for business. If you think your workforce may be experiencing these dynamics, it makes sense to explore strategies for reducing high-intensity work demands or offering targeted training and resources to support employees in better managing work-related stress.