What is Overwork? Why Is It Negative?

What is Overwork? Why Is It Negative? feature image

Overwork has been present in workplaces for as long as humans have worked, but it hasn't always been recognized and named. Overwork is simple: it is the experience of working too hard, for too long, without appropriate breaks for rest and renewal. Overwork is hardest to spot because it is physically possible to overwork for quite a long time, with unpredictable and catastrophic results that appear when you least expect them.

Here are some of the consequences and results of overwork that make it essential to avoid it. Anyone who values a sustainably viable business long-term will reduce or eliminate overwork in their workplace.

Overly Valuing Long Hours Masks Other Workplace Issues

Overworked workplaces often seem like high-performing places at first: after all, 5pm comes and goes with everyone still passionately working away at their desks or stations. However, the problem with having everyone consistently working more than they ought to, and being valued for doing so, is that we don't see why this overwork is necessary. If everyone extends their work hours unquestioningly, we don't know if:

  • Projects are being bid at unsustainably low rates or with too quick of timelines.
  • Low performers are putting in long hours to look better at their jobs than they actually are.
  • High performers are generating great results but are quickly losing patience with lack of recognition.

All of these possibilities are more important than having a workforce that works late or on the weekends. Letting your community think that working overtime will get them out of these problems is short-sighted and will lead to problems.

Overwork Prioritizes Hours and Completion Over Quality and Longevity

A similar issue is that overwork tends to focus on how much time is being worked and how many projects/results are achieved. The actual quality of these results, and whether they can be sustained long-term, is less important. Allowing or promoting overwork is essentially prioritizing a crisis today over the ability to continue solving your customer's problems tomorrow and beyond.

Overwork Breeds Burnout

Burnout is an experience that characterizes those who do too much of work that matters to them or which they were previously deeply engaged with. When you have creative or thoughtful professionals and expose them to constant pressure to perform, they often find themselves experiencing burnout. Burnout may not actually stop them from continuing to work: burnout tends to be a change of attitude first and foremost, which can later have impacts on output and quality of work. Because burnout makes people who were previously motivated to do great work feel like their work doesn't matter or like they don't care personally about doing the work, the results can be inherently unpredictable. As a result, most forward-thinking management professionals work hard to keep burnout at bay, encouraging their workers who are prone to overwork to take weekends, vacations, sick time, and any other breaks they need to maintain their overall interest in the work.

Overwork Breeds High Turnover

Beyond burnout, many high performers may not tell you that they are unsatisfied with the high demand for overtime until they are already resigning for a different job offer. Most companies find that it costs at least 15-20% of an employee's compensation to replace them, though many estimate it much higher. Choosing to perpetuate a culture of overwork can actually cost your company lots of lost productivity as you hire and train someone new, only to keep the cycle going with impossible expectations placed on the new person to catch up with the needed work.

Overwork Can Have Major Physical Health Results

One of the saddest and most under-considered results of overwork are the physical health results. Overwork often coincides with poor eating habits during working hours for the sake of convenience, and can result in delaying routine, preventative medical care in order to show up for work every single day. In extreme circumstances, people's chronic conditions flare up, stress-related injuries and illnesses skyrocket, and even ordinary health concerns like the common cold can become worse and worse through lack of rest. Many people do not get their overwork wake-up call until after they've experienced a major health scare, but a good manager will want to avoid the bad press and chaos that even one stress-induced health failure can bring. Help your staff prioritize vacation time, regular medical appointments, and taking rest time to themselves. Extreme stress is terrible for the employees and makes staffing for employers chaotic and hard to manage.

Chronic Stress Deprives Your Brain of Innovative Thoughts

The one thing that people who allow a culture of overwork care about tends to be results. However, increasing evidence points to the fact that even the beloved results go away with too much work. If your brain is operating under chronic stress, it is more likely to go for the easiest or least complex thought, not to open itself up to innovation and creativity. Especially in jobs that absolutely require creative thought for success, it is actually very detrimental to your mission to allow chronic stress to overtake your workers in the form of overwork.

What Fights Overwork? Planned, Expected Rest

Many companies are recognizing that a culture of overwork is expensive in every way: talent, money, institutional experience. Therefore, they are finding creative solutions, from unlimited vacation time that they actually encourage people to use, to 4 day workweeks where you are required to take a third day off out of every 7-day week. These requirements are how companies demonstrate that they can be serious about fast-paced, high-quality work without expecting endless hours of continuous work from their star employees.

The key is that avoiding overwork cannot be something you give lip service to: employees can sense if you "say" you want them to rest, but really you just want them to somehow be healthy and motivated while still working 70 hour weeks. Rather, you need to create systems in which no one is penalized for their planned, expected rest times; make it so integral to the culture of your business that no one would dream of overworking as a way to "show off" their abilities.

Nicholas Rempel

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