The Wall Street Journal recently published an article entitled American Workers Are Burned Out, and Bosses Are Struggling to Respond which points out that “chronic overwork already was rampant before the pandemic” in the U.S., seemingly explaining why resignations have risen. “It is not simply the long hours taking a toll,” Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser is quoted as saying. “It is the density of the day. Bouncing from one Zoom to the next. Barely a minute to catch your breath. To reflect, digest, or prepare for what’s next.”
The article also mentions a former chief marketing officer who explains she experienced stress-related health problems and decided to quit her work to start a new digital job – one with a slower pace. These testimonials show that employees experience increased workload-related pressure because of work intensity, which can manifest itself as lack of breaks, non-stop work, working at high speed or working constantly under tight deadlines.
Until recently, there seemed to be an over-focus on how employees who experience pressure at work in the form of long hours or overtime also experience deteriorated health and well-being. Nevertheless, similar to the above testimonials, research has shown that a much more pressing issue for employee well-being is that of work intensity. Quite simply because of its harmful effects on employee health and general well-being, which appear to be worse than the effects of overtime work.
“Work intensity is generally a stronger predictor of unfavourable outcomes”
In our study entitled Implications of Work Effort and Discretion for Employee Well-Being and Career-Related Outcomes: An Integrative Assessment and based on the 2010 and 2015 European Working Conditions Surveys (EWCS), Hans Frankort from Bayes Business School and I examined the implications of overtime work and work intensity. We found that compared to overtime work, work intensity is generally a stronger predictor of unfavourable outcomes such as increased stress and fatigue and decreased satisfaction, even when employees have discretion to decide how and when to carry out their work.
Both governments and organizations have tried to implement strategies that discourage employees from overworking. The article in the Wall Street Journal mentions, for example, that “some are trying mandatory companywide vacation days and blackout hours when meetings are banned. Executives are experimenting with new ways of working, including four-day workweeks and asynchronous schedules that allow people to set their own hours.” However, most of the strategies and initiatives focus on how to limit overtime and long hours rather than work intensity.
“Task uncertainty and certain human resource practices seem to be strong positive predictors of work intensity”
In the impact paper I wrote as part of ESCP Business School’s Better Business: Creating Sustainable Value series, I focused on work intensity as an important element of unsustainable work, and examined some important antecedents of work intensity. Specifically, I examined how employee characteristics, human resource practices, working hours, and types of contract are associated with work intensity.
My analysis shows that task uncertainty and certain human resource practices seem to be strong positive predictors of work intensity. As I also explained for the World Economic Forum, HR managers and those in leadership roles need to implement policies and practices that discourage work intensity. Employees who are provided human resource practices such as schedule discretion and discretion to change the order of tasks, methods of work and the speed of work seem to experience less work intensity (compared to employees who do not have such discretion).