Why are so many people overworking, and what can we do about it?

The problem

In the last twenty years, there has been a massive shake out of the number of people employed by organisations. The need to improve productivity and reduce costs has been evident and probably necessary. However, in most organisations, reducing the number of people employed has been much more straightforward than reducing the work they do.

People fill the gap by giving much more time to the organisation than they contracted to do. This is good for the profits of the organisation in the short term. Its longer-range consequences are entirely destructive.

Some consequences at work

Rest and relaxation are rational needs. If we do not have enough of them, we will make more mistakes, miss opportunities and do our jobs poorly. We will have less enthusiasm for change and development. It will feel like another demand.

Pressure, stress, and tight deadlines often make people insensitive to their colleagues and support staff’s needs. This leads to tensions between people, with no time to resolve them. This increases the stress, reduces performance and accelerates the counterproductive spiral.

The pressure to produce output makes it difficult to stop ‘doing’. Managers do not look at how people work together or the systems they use to see how to handle the situation better. Managers stop managing people.

Work becomes something to survive rather than a place to be creative. People get ill and have time off work. The ability of the organisation to innovate disappears.

Influence on families and the wider society

The influence on families can be catastrophic. Organisational behaviour causes a large proportion of marital and relationship tensions. If relationships are to work, the partners must have time together and the energy for good quality time. It is not enough to be home late and be so tired that you immediately fall asleep. Partners find the other coming home late, tired, not taking holidays, travelling on business at weekends and working at home unacceptable and end the relationship. It is even more difficult for dual-career couples.

Children from homes where their parent or parents cannot listen to their children are more likely to be delinquent, underachieve or be unemployed than those with parents who can do so. Any parent will tell you that parenting is the most challenging and demanding job.

The financial costs of coping with relationship and family breakdown come back to organisations and individuals through the tax system. The social costs are an unhappy society.

Overworking creates unemployment. Many people are overworking with all the stresses described. A large but smaller number are unemployed and suffering from a lack of meaning and poverty. It is logical to share the work and reduce the stress and stress-related costs for both groups.

Why do we put up with it?

There are at least two groups of people who overwork. Some are ‘workaholics’. These people live for work. They are not responding to outside pressure. Workaholics have often had early experiences where working was the only way to get any love and approval. They continue to seek this approval through their work. Of course, they cannot get now what they needed in the past. Although these people are victims of what happened to them, their behaviour can be challenging at work. They make work for people around them and then pressure others to be as ‘committed’ as they are.

Most of the people who overwork are not ‘workaholics’. They are forced into this pattern of working. The economic climate makes them afraid of not conforming to how others behave in the organisation or what people expect. It is hard to say that you want to be with your partner or child and will not stay late tonight. The quality of the work falls because of the resentment (sometimes unconscious) about having to be there.

So what?

Organisations under short-term pressure for results may ignore these uncomfortable realities. However, when job prospects improve, the best people will move to organisations that allow them to work to live rather than vice versa. This is already starting to happen. Recruiting good people into organisations encouraging overworking will also become progressively more difficult.

If society wants to take serious action against crime, it has to start thinking about encouraging stable, loving families. One way is to stop this destructive pattern of overwork.

What can be done?

Individuals can:

  • Decide whether overworking is good for themselves and their families.
  • If it is not, decide to stop it by:
    • Setting a time to leave and sticking to it
    • Looking at the work and eliminating low-value items
    • Discussing the reasons for tasks and the standards and effort required. Many tasks are done in too much detail
    • Seeing ‘too much work to do in the time available’ as an organisational problem.

Teams can:

  • Spend time together away from the workplace to consider how they manage the work.

This can lead to:

  • Simplifying systems and processes to avoid wasting effort.
  • Having clearer priorities, thus making it acceptable not to do low-priority work or do it less thoroughly.
  • Building more trust and communication between team members so they deal with stressful demands supportively.
  • Working with teams providing the work or receiving output so the system works smoothly.
  • If, when the above is done, there is still more essential work that can be done in the time available, then work together to create a case for the organisation to provide more resources.

Organisations can:

  • Consider all the financial and otherwise costs of a culture of overwork. If they are too high, then.
  • Set some policy guidelines.

E.g. “In this organisation, except in a rare emergency, we expect employees to be able to achieve their targets in no more than X hours per week”. “Where this is difficult, the solution will usually be found through discussion with your colleagues and manager and may include additional training. Taking work home routinely is unacceptable.”

  • Provide an incentive for their clients to give reasonable notice of what is required. Refuse to accept very short deadlines (rushed work by pressured people is rarely first-class work).

Society can:

  • Redefine individual success as a fruitful, balanced, happy life, not only personal wealth or power
  • We could start to do this through public debate and discovering model examples
  • Provide a forum for discussion and sharing about the society and culture we want to be. The meeting would be truly representative of all the groups in society.
  • Evaluate organisations on the quality of and benefits of their activities, including the quality of life of their employees and the benefits to society and the environment.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick