Articles from Cass Knowledge

For improved job prospects and a better sense of well-being, don't work so hard!

You may not be surprised to learn that working too hard and for too long can be bad for your health. However, it may also harm your career. This study analyses the effects of overtime and high work intensity, and asks whether employee discretion regarding working practices can mitigate them.

How does an employee’s effort at work affect their well-being and career prospects?

With millions of European workers regularly working overtime and/or at high intensity, this is a key question for employers and policy makers.

A new study offers an analysis of the implications of overtime and work intensity for employee well-being and their career outcomes. It also examines how the level of discretion, the freedom to decide when and how to carry out the work, given to employees influences the relationship between work effort and outcomes.  

The paper defines each dimension of work effort as follows:

Overtime – the amount of time an employee works in excess of normal hours.

Work intensity – the level of effort supplied per unit of working time.

In a representative sample of almost 52,000 European employees across 36 European countries, the research shows that greater work effort is associated with reduced well-being and inferior career related outcomes. The negative effects of increased work effort were commonly seen, even in higher level occupations.

There may be several reasons for these results; for example:

  • Overtime prolongs a worker’s exposure to stresses in the workplace and decreases the amount of time available for recovery between working days.
  • Work intensity reduces or eliminates the gaps between tasks within the normal work day time frame, meaning there is less time during a working day to recover.

Either can result in fatigued employees who expend greater effort simply to maintain adequate performance. Greater work effort is associated with symptoms of stress, anxiety, fatigue, and depression. Reduced recovery time may lead to an increased likelihood of mistakes and even accidents. Such issues may lead to a decline in the quality of work, which may then negatively affect the worker’s career prospects.

Although both work effort dimensions possess some value as a signal of an employee’s worth to the management (leading potentially to more secure contracts, pay rises or even promotion), it may be that the value is outweighed by their self-limiting and counterproductive aspects.

The research then examines how the association with work effort and employee outcomes varies with the level of discretion afforded employees.

It is found that discretion may attenuate the adverse effects of work effort on both well-being and career prospects, but overtime work and high work intensity still remain strong indicators of negative outcomes. The study does discern that discretion might be more effective in helping high-skilled white collar workers deal with overtime work, and low-skilled blue collar workers deal with work intensity.

Although previous studies have generally focused on the effects of overtime, with some governments setting strict limits on working hours as a result, this paper shows that work intensity and its outcomes, both positive and negative, are similar in context. In fact it was seen that it might be relatively better to do some overtime work than to work too intensively. The study therefore recommends that policy makers give the same consideration to the negative effects of intensive work as many already do to overtime hours, as the former may have an even more deleterious effect on employee well-being than the latter.

In short, it may not pay to work too hard.

The accepted version of the research paper Implications of work effort and discretion for employee well-being and career-related outcomes: an integrative assessment is available for download at the link below.

Dr. Hans Frankort - Cass Experts Page


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