Tales of employees working long hours, under intense pressure, for time-hungry organizations abound these days. How accurate are such portrayals? Although workplaces vary, 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.1 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.2,3
- White-collar professionals with well-paying jobs often work very long hours—at least 50 hours a week, and sometimes more.4
- The rise of the smart phone and other communication technologies have heightened expectations of 24-7 availability for professionals.4
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).
The High Cost of Heavy Demands: Why Employers Should Care
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.5 More generally, the health risks posed by heavy work demands are comparable to the effects of regular exposure to secondhand smoke.
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.6
Ongoing stress can continually expose our bodies to a stew of hormones that can increase the risk of both minor sickness (such as the common cold) and major disease (such as coronary heart disease). For instance, one recent study found that prolonged exposure to work-related stress is linked with an increased likelihood of lung, colon, rectal, and stomach cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma in men.
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. As noted above, highly stressed individuals are more prone to getting sick, and sick employees are more likely to be absent, to incur higher workers’ compensation and medical insurance 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.7 One way employers can alleviate these burdens and costs is to invest in workplace practices that make work more manageable and less chronically stressful. Research has identified a set of promising practices for identifying and easing excessive work demands and the stress associated with them.