The Overwork Phenomenon

Reflections on Workplace Perspectives

Corporations who exploit their employees by manipulating an "overwork culture" are killing employee motivation, commitment and ultimately, production.

Corporations who exploit their employees by manipulating an "overwork culture" are killing employee motivation, commitment and ultimately, production.

The Business Pundit, in his April 6, 2009 post,  shares five ways that organizations sabotage their own success by breeding incompetence:  using numbers as the only device to measure performance, spreading workers too thin, expecting too much too soon, putting a bigger premium on politics than performance, rewarding mediocrity.

    Each of these contribute to poor employee morale; and, I have watched organizations self destruct, oblivious to how manager competence distanced the employee from organizational goals.  I have also consulted with owners and managers feeling the pain of their own poor decision-making.

    I would like to focus on one of these — overworking employees.  I am sure you have heard of survivor syndrome.  During downsizing,  employees dismissed or laid off tend to attract our sympathy — loss of income, threat to home and family, challenges of being rehired in a difficult economic climate.  Those who keep their jobs are referred to as survivors.  They keep their positions and maintain their income.  However, in a poorly managed environment, remaining workers can be asked to work harder and longer hours.  The risk, of course, is fatigue and eventual burnout.  This employee may end up on sick leave or may willingly choose to leave.  Indeed, the survivor will only survive in a competently managed work environment.

    This kind of burnout may also occur in growing companies.  As  companies expand, there is a point where revenues are not sufficient to fund needed growth in staff.  In this situation, managers will lean on the goodwill they have built with their best employees.   They will pressure trusted and devoted staff to work harder and longer hours.   Initially, the request will be for a short period; however, tettering on the edge between ordinary and superior, the manager will demand more help.   As one distraught manager shared with me, “I pushed them too hard for too long.  I lost the employees that I knew would be key players in my expanded company.  They no longer trusted me to treat them fairly”.

    No employee should be expected to overwork for an extended period of time.  This level of dedication could be achieved for a short period with the promise of benefits like promotions and stock options;  however, eventually something will give — employee health, employee morale, employee performance, employee trust.

    We should not overlook that managers are also under a great deal of stress, either from their managers expectations, overpromising to their managers out of fear or from the bleak reality that their businesses are under threat of extinction.  Still, overworking employees can be blindly perceived as an optimal short term strategy.  Managers must develop, perhaps in consultation with their reliable and trusted staff, more sustainable work strategies.

    Corporations can also contribute to the problem by creating fear of job loss.  In a highly competitive work environment and job market, corporations need their employees to overwork so they can compete, let alone survive.  In Reflections of a World Citizen, the blogger cites ” Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives” (Bunting , 2004).  Bunting’s shocking finding is that corporations are in fact engineering the overwork mindset causing job intensification, in effect burning out their workforce.  She refers to this action as “the most exploitive and manipulative work cultures developed since the Industrial Revolution”.

    The problem isn’t whether employees can find work says Anonymous Employee-Helping You Solve Your Problems at Work .  The problem often is that employees end up with too much work affecting their lifestyle, their health and production.  In effect, the culture that our material society has created in not healthy or happy for the employee.

    I have focussed on overwork to make a point.  The essence of this issue is the role that managers can play to ensure that employees are healthy and productive.

    Have you found yourself caught in one of these work environments?  How did you cope?  What do you see as viable solutions where workers are under constant stress to work long hours?