Wednesday, February 01, 2020

What Constitutes Overwork?

Before we conclude, as the two recent surveys noted below did, that more than 30% of American and British employees are chronically overworked, I think it would be a good idea to define what counts as being "overworked." Is it doing more than a certain number of hours of work in a specified period? Is it feeling that you have to handle more than you are comfortable with? Are there symptoms, physical or mental, that indicate the condition?

The reason for my question is a practical one. It's easy to diagnose overwork at the extreme: when people collapse under the strain. But the effect of work must depend, at least in part, on the constitution, health, character and attitude of the individual. What is an acceptable level of work for you—young, fit, eager and quick—may be guaranteed to reduce me—old, tired, not too healthy and losing interest in my job—to a state of exhaustion.

If we're to convince employers and legislators that there's a limit to what the human mind and body should be asked to handle, short of collapse, there need to be some agreed measures or symptoms that are accepted as indicators of generally excessive workload.

In March 2005, Management Issues reported a survey published by the British non-profit Working Families. In reporting that more than a third of their survey sample felt stressed by overwork, the survey authors cited "increased irritability, sleeplessness, lack of exercise and exhaustion" as indicators of problems. However, they also pointed out that many people in their survey "drink too much and eat unhealthy food," implying that this too was caused somehow by stress. Or were at least some of the symptoms more linked to a poor lifestyle than overwork? In reporting work problems, we need to be careful not to assume that any and every issue is due to work pressure. Making excessive claims easily undermines an otherwise strong case.

The same survey also claimed that morale and productivity fall as working hours increase. That's a striking finding, but the evidence presented is sketchy. If working long hours lowers productivity, that would be a powerful argument to persuade employers not to take that route.

The second survey, Overwork in America, published by the Families and Work Institute, relied largely on individuals' statements for its findings. People were asked questions like: "How often have you felt overwhelmed by how much you had to do at work in the last month?" This gives an excellent image of what people are feeling, but it's still a subjective measure. Opponents could claim that feeling "overwhelmed" says as much or more about the individual as the situation. What overwhelms one person may scarcely ruffle another.

Of course, if large numbers report feeling overwhelmed, that might suggest the reports are sufficiently widespread to be objective. In the survey, 27% of people said they were overwhelmed by how much work they had to do often or very often in the previous month, which suggests it can't be dismissed as complaints from a handful of malcontents. The problem, however, remains. One person's overwork is another person's acceptable, if hard, workload, making it easy for unscrupulous employers to ignore the problems. Until there is some more objective and widely accepted measure of an effective workload, it will be fairly easy for organizations to set whatever standard they wish, short of general collapse.

Do you have ideas about how best to measure the presence of overwork? If you do, please send me a comment for publication on this site. Maybe together we can begin to find a way that will be accepted by employers and politicians as an indicator that work demands have gone beyond an acceptable level.

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Kendall said...

I know that when I think of myself as "overworked" it's a combination of work stress as well as workload. For example I might be highly stressed about any number of things on a given day. When that's combined with an overwhelming workload I would say that that is overwork.

12:33 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Kendall. Anyone else have ideas?

7:21 AM  
Russell Crosswy said...

Well, if companies are decreasing the number of employees they have and wish to maintain their current output. Then the people are probably performing multiple tasks, or they wear several different hats. This would contribute to the feeling of being pulled in too many directions.

I think a lot will come down to personal preference. I remember in college how some people could complete an assignment in no time while others had to spend hours on the same task. I didn't see it necessarily as one was smarter than the other, one was just able to get it done quicker.

I agree that some people are running their engines over the red line and will eventually break down. I think it is about personal preference and limitations for each individual and can even be different for the same person at different points in their life.

As a general guideline, if all you have the energy and time to do is work related, when you leave work you don't feel like doing anything else, then you may be overworked.

2:39 PM  

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