Employee Wellness


Is Work Overload Hurting Your Organization’s Performance?

5 ways to foster healthier workloads and workplace culture so your employees can achieve balance and perform at their best.

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The Calm Team

5 min read

Employees around the world say they’re overworked and it’s affecting their mental health. In fact, “being overworked” is the second-from-the-top employee stressor—just behind financial worries— according to Calm’s survey of 4,000 workers in the US, UK, Germany, and India

And the potential damage of overwork extends beyond employee mental health. Working beyond one’s capacity for too long can spawn physical health challenges, too. What’s more, when work overload is pervasive across your workforce, it can take a toll on workplace productivity, talent retention, and organizational performance.

Working beyond capacity can lead to burnout and physical illness

Overwork commonly leads to anxiety, insomnia, stress, and, if it persists, burnout. “Both qualitative and quantitative work overload contribute to burnout by depleting the capacity of people to meet the demands of the job,” wrote Dr. Christina Maslach, professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “When this kind of overload is a chronic job condition, there is little opportunity to rest, recover, and restore balance.”

The end result, Maslach explained, is not just exhaustion. Employees experiencing burnout are “overwhelmed, unable to cope, and unmotivated, and they display negative attitudes and poor performance.” 

They also could experience various physical health issues. A five-year study of 56 teams at a Fortune 500 company showed that IT professionals struggling with unmanageable workloads and expectations were experiencing challenges from hives to heart attacks and strokes. At the same time, the weight of unsustainable workloads was causing some employees to forgo self-care and indulge in unhealthy behaviors such as excessive consumption of alcohol, smoking, and eating poorly, putting them at higher risk for illness.

Work overload can backfire on organizations

Some leaders may believe that the pros of overwork outweigh the cons—that cases of burnout are isolated and that more work generally means more productivity. Research shows this isn’t the case, however. A study from Stanford University found that productivity per hour sharply declines when a person works more than 50 hours per week. When someone works 55 hours per week, their productivity declines to the point that logging extra hours becomes pointless.  

Indeed, employees experiencing burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6x more likely to be job hunting, according to Gallup. And when knowledge workers are overloaded, they’re less equipped to develop creative or innovative solutions to problems. Accordingly, when chronic overwork becomes common or pervasive across the organization, there’s more potential downside than benefit.  

It’s easy to underestimate the amount of burnout in an organization. In many workplaces, burnout is stigmatized as weakness, explained Maslach, which can keep employees from disclosing their struggles with workplace demands. If your organization is experiencing high levels of absenteeism or attrition, burnout from overwork could be a hidden contributing factor.  

5 steps employers can take to combat overwork and burnout

It’s common to focus on the employee as the source of both the problem and the solution. If an employee is working too many hours, for example, their manager might say they need to develop better time management skills or learn how to work more efficiently.   

However, employers can take steps to ensure that work overload isn’t a pervasive and chronic problem that’s undermining their retention, productivity, and performance goals. Here are five things employers can do to support healthy workloads and healthier workforces:

1. Elevate well-being as a core strategy and value

Recognizing that employee well-being is fundamental to individual and organization-wide performance, get clear about what employee well-being means in practice at your workplace. Consider adding language about well-being to your company values if it’s not already included. Communicate consistently about expected employee availability and standard work hours. Bring “burnout” into the workplace dialogue to help destigmatize it and raise awareness that your goal is to eliminate work overload as a source of stress and burnout. Finally, ask leaders to talk about their lives and responsibilities outside work and encourage employees to talk about theirs.

If you define employee well-being at your workplace, you’re well positioned to measure and track it. Through pulse surveys, find out if overwork is pervasive by asking employees about their workloads and work–life balance. If they’re working more hours than expected, why? Are they using vacation time and taking micro breaks? Hold leaders and managers accountable for the health and well-being of their teams, not just their output and results. For example, hold them accountable for checking in with employees monthly about their workloads, balance, and overall well-being and reporting on the results.  

3. Give employees more control, autonomy, and flexibility in how they get their work done

According to Maslach, “when employees have the perceived capacity to influence decisions that affect their work, to exercise professional autonomy, and to gain access to the resources necessary to do an effective job, they are more likely to experience job engagement.” By contrast, a lack of control is associated with stress and burnout. 

Rather than require employees to make a special request for flexible work hours—which they may worry will be perceived as a lack of commitment or other weakness—give all employees the flexibility to decide when and where to get their work done. Also consider giving employees more flexibility to decline meetings that aren’t essential to their roles.

4. Train managers to create supportive workplaces

Discussions about workloads and work–life balance can be difficult for employees when they don’t feel safe and supported. Managers who lead empathetically and regulate their own emotions in complex situations build a more psychologically safe environment for employees.

Consider training managers to become more self-aware and empathetic and to better manage their own emotions. Help them learn how to detect signs of overwork, stress, and burnout and build an open workplace culture in which employees feel safe talking about their mental and emotional health. 

Several Calm Workshops, including How to Create Work-Life Balance, Minimizing Stress and Burnout, and Building Mental Health Literacy in Your Organization, can help. Calm’s “Mindful Manager’s Checklist: 5 Steps to Becoming a Mindful Manager” is another resource for managers you can try.

5. Offer digital tools to help employees focus and manage stress

In conjunction with taking steps to establish a workplace culture more supportive of balance, consider offering a preventive tool such as Calm that can help employees focus, build resilience under pressure, and manage stress before it escalates to burnout. Employees can easily integrate Calm music, soundscapes, breathing exercises, and mindfulness resources into their workday to find relief and balance.

Periods of intense work are normal, but when employees experience chronic work overload, the impact can be far-reaching, affecting the health of employees and organizations. While there’s no quick fix for pervasive overwork, there are ways to create healthier workplaces. For more ideas for cultivating a more balanced work culture, download our Workforce Well-being Checklist or connect with a Calm specialist today.

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