The Difference Between Hard Work and Overworked

You’re a proven leader. As a manager, you take pride in empowering your team and delegating to each employee’s strengths. In turn, you expect great performance. But are you motivating them to be their best or running them to the point of collapse? It can take empathy and insight to tell the difference. The negative impact of overwork makes it worth taking the time to analyze for the sake of retention, quality, and your bottom line. 

Not Every Employee Is The Same 

Treat your people as individuals, not a monolith. You may find one employee will take on almost any quantity of work as long as they feel appreciated, respected, and well-compensated. Another may seem completely overwhelmed by multipart task instructions. Keep your eyes open for signs that employees are stressed and confused. Preventing burnout can be as simple as breaking large tasks into their component parts or ensuring workers are assigned to roles that play to their strengths.  

What Does Overwork Look Like? 

You’ll see employees who lack motivation, seem unengaged, or are no longer enjoying their jobs. Now, few jobs are all fun – that’s why they call it work, but most people will experience satisfaction at completing their to-do list and the sense of a job well done. Burnout is typically caused by chronic overwork. Almost every physically and mentally healthy employee can rise to the occasion for a short time, working long hours or late nights

or yearly inventory, a holiday rush, or tax season. No one can operate at full throttle 100% of the time. 

How Serious Is Employee Burnout? 

The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies burnout as an occupational phenomenon characterized by chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managedEmployee burnout manifests in low energy or exhaustion, feeling mentally distant, negative, or cynical regarding their job and experiencing reduced professional efficacy. It can also have a significant impact on employees’ physical and mental health.  

Overwork Causes Measurable Issues 

Overworking employees is bad for your employees’ physical and mental health, not to mention productivity levels, employee morale and your bottom line: 

  • Meta-analysis of several studies shows that employees who work long hours have a higher risk of stroke than those working standard hours. Other physical problems can arise as well, such as headaches, muscle pain, and shortness of breath. Accidents, illness, emotional dysregulation, and mistakes become more common. 
  • Working more than 55 hours per week has been linked to health issues, diminished productivity, and increased alcohol consumption. This leads to excessive sick days, high turnover levels, and higher health insurance costs, increasing employment expenses. 
  • More hours worked ≠ more productivity. As work hours increase, so does each employee’s need for recovery. Without the opportunity to rejuvenate and recharge, the resulting exhaustion impedes productivity, leaving people anxious. Overwork is easy to misdiagnose as stress, but it’s fully controllable.  
  • Employees who work less don’t always accomplish less. In a study by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, employers could not detect a difference between employees who worked 80 hours a week and those who just said they did. 
  • Overwork can interfere with sleep. People need more sleep than they think. Only 1-3% of people can get by with five or six hours on a regular basis. Inadequate sleep can interfere with performance, productivity, and decision-making. Not to mention the health and safety issues that arise.  

Impact Of The Pandemic 

Burnout in employees has dramatically increased as a result of the pandemic. A May 2020 SHRM survey revealed 41 percent of employees surveyed found themselves burned out from the stress of managing work during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to a Gallup survey conducted in January 2020, which indicated about 23 percent of employees reported symptoms of burnout. Do you have high expectations that encourage your team to be their best, or are you making unrealistic demands of your staff? 

How Can You Tell You’re Overworking Your Team? 

There’s a fine line between requiring hard work from your employees – and simply overworking them. Here are a few signs of overwork you may have crossed it: 

  • Employees are working early mornings, late nights, and/or weekends. While short bursts of overtime may not be cause for concern, take note of employees whose schedules regularly extend beyond standard work hours. 
  • Employees seem more frustrated, impatient, or emotional. Chronic overwork increases stress, disrupts sleep patterns, and may impact relationships outside work. If normally rational team members seem more on-edge, consider whether overwork may be to blame. 
  • Employees skip important commitments for work reasons. If you catch wind that workers are missing family obligations because they feel like they can’t take time off work, it could indicate that your staff is overburdened. 
  • Mistakes increase and productivity drops. There’s a reason why 19th-century factory owners began to limit work hours. They found that when they limited work hours, output increased while expensive mistakes and accidents decreased. Errors waste time because someone has to go back to correct them, even doubling efforts at times.
  • Workplace accidents are on the rise. This is particularly dangerous for employees who use heavy machinery, hazardous materials, or dangerous tools. They can injure themselves and endanger employees. Lost time accidents occur and employee morale plummets.  

If you notice any of these signs, your staff could be overworked – and you may be driving great workers out the door. And unfortunately, high performers are at the greatest risk for job burnout because of their exceptional capability and commitment.

So, while it’s reasonable to occasionally ask employees to work overtime, consider whether you’re consistently piling too much work on their plates and take steps to address the issue.  

What Can You Do About Overwork? 

Make sustainable work-life balance a priority by making sure employees are not overworked. Overtime pay can be attractive, but it has limitations. Consider these productivity tips for managers that offer solutions to reduce overwork and keep employees happy and healthy. 

Encourage people to take time off. While American workers get just a fraction of the time off employees in other countries do, they tend to feel guilty taking it, often leaving earned hours on the table. Lead by example by taking vacations yourself and don’t skip lunch. 

Cross-train employees. Taking time off shouldn’t be stressful. Returning from vacation shouldn’t feel like punishment. When someone is out of the office for any reason, they should be confident that someone is taking care of their workload in their absence, rather than worrying it’s continuing to pile up. 

Adjust staffing levels. While adding headcount is expensive, it can save money in the long run. If long days, weekend work and excess hours become a regular part of business, it may be time to hire. Reduce the risk of overstaffing by starting with temporary or contract employees to pick up the slack. It’s a risk-free way to boost productivity. 

Show appreciation. If you need employees to step up for a limited time – such as a special project, sudden demand, or unpredictable crisis, don’t take them for granted. Offer comp time, buy lunch, provide breaks, give out prizes. It can increase engagement and improve retention when employees feel you are all on the same team.  

Encourage professional development. Show employees that their hard work will pay off in the long run. If they are working toward a goal and feel supported in their career growth, it can boost motivation and job satisfaction.  

If you are looking for ways to address overwork effectively, PrideStaff can design an intelligent, cost-effective solution to help you get your work done – while keeping your best employees happy and working at their peak. 

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