How high workloads affect our mental and physical health

Negative effects can be alleviated by improved job control and organisational support

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 January, 2016, 3:25pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 January, 2016, 3:25pm

It’s been a hard day’s night, the Beatles say, as they’ve been working like a dog.

It’s a common complaint in almost every occupation, from academia to banking to vehicle assembly: an ever growing workload.

Demands of our jobs vary from day to day: there are days when we work extra fast or even overtime to meet a deadline and, if we’re lucky, there are periods that offer some breathing space.

With the emphasis on worker productivity, employers want to get the most out of each employee. High workload is the norm rather than the exception. But every person has their breaking point.

What then are the emotional and physiological effects from a high workload?

In the finance industry for example, recent news headlines have pointed to the extremely long hours and workload pressure faced by Wall Street interns as contributing to at least two deaths.

In response Goldman Sachs, regarded as one of the toughest Wall Street firms, issued a directive last year to their investment banking interns that they must not be in the office between midnight and seven in the morning (a relatively minor concession, some may feel).

Unsurprisingly, our research shows that an increasingly heavy workload raises distress among employees. They feel more uneasy, tense and worried, and by the end of a demanding work day, they are less able to concentrate on what they are doing.

They also experience more emotional burnout and frequently say they are too tired to face another day.

Firms perceived as showing no appreciation have employees whose blood pressure rises with increased workload

Physiologically, their systolic blood pressure was observed to be higher on days with higher workloads than on days with lower workloads.

This impact is particularly worrisome in light of a recent US study which found that even young people with blood pressure of below 140/90 – i.e. out of the band normally considered to be high – could suffer damage to heart muscles by middle age.

The study from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found this could pave the way to potential full-blown heart failure later in life.

What interventions can companies and their employees engage in to guard against such effects?

Our research shows that within the work environment, such negative psychological and physiological effects can be alleviated by improved job control and organisational support.

Job control in this context refers to an employee’s ability to influence on his or her job. It includes the discretion the schedule ones work, the autonomy to make decisions about ones work, and freedom and independence in how to do ones work. Unlike workload that varies day by day, job control is typically fairly stable.

Organisational support meanwhile is the extent to which employees perceive that their contributions are valued by the employer, that the firm cares about their well-being, and that it supports them to effectively carry out their job and handle stressful situations.

Our study found that when employees have control over their job, their blood pressure remains stable even when there is high workload. Furthermore, their emotional distress is less extreme.

On the other hand, when there is low job control, increased workload leads to elevated blood pressure and the psychological stress becomes more extreme.

Employees working for firms that recognise their contributions and furnish support also show no increase in blood pressure when faced with a higher workload.

However, firms perceived as showing no appreciation have employees whose blood pressure rises with increased workload. Likewise, employees experience less wild swings in stress even when workload piles up if the firm is seen as being more supportive.

In today’s hectic world of work and given that high workloads increase productivity, it may be difficult for a company to keep employees’ workload at a stable and moderate level. However, organisational support and job control and are two factors within a firm’s control.

Knowing that the company cares for them, listens to them, and values their contributions increases employees’ psychological and physiological resilience and should alleviate the negative consequences of higher-than-normal workloads. Hence, employers should provide maximal support to their employees, especially when workloads are high.

Showing appreciation to employees and providing an environment to de-stress are ways towards cultivating emotionally and physiologically healthy employees. Providing employees with freedom and opportunities to schedule their own work and to make decisions regarding their work and the way they perform their tasks should help them better deal with the load of work. Thus, companies that design jobs that offer increased level of control while giving support to their employees can reap the productivity benefits associated with high workloads and minimise the costs (e.g., health care, absenteeism).

Remus Ilies and Irene de Pater are professor and assistant professor of management and organisation at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School