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What is Overwork? The Answer is Not as Straight-forward as You Think

“I’d love to change the way work fits into my life, but I have too much of it,” is one of the top three excuses people use for not finding a better work+life “fit.” Too much work, or overwork, is part of the challenge of the 24/7 work reality. According to the 2004 study Overwork in America by Families and Work Institute (FWI), “one-third of all U.S. employees can be viewed as chronically overworked.” Ironically, being overworked is the reason these individuals need a new “fit.” But they don’t try to create a new fit because they have too much work. It’s vicious cycle. Getting past the excuses and finding a solution requires answering the question: “What is overwork?” But, there’s not a straight-forward answer. Here’s why:

It’s Personal and Contextual

Here’s a scenario I often see: Two people work in the same environment and have the same job, but one person is overworked, while the other is fine. Why? Because overwork doesn’t have a single definition. Everyone thinks “I know it when I see it,” but one person’s overwork is another person’s challenging, and fulfilling workload. Consider the Sloan Work and Family Research Network’s definition of overwork,

“Overwork can be defined as negative outcomes that occur when individuals are required to work more hours than they want to work. Personal perceptions of workload are critical as individuals have diverse reactions to the number of hours worked depending upon their needs, lifestyle, expectations and experiences. Individuals have a different tolerance for demands and stress.”

This is why two people with the same workload can have different perceptions of overwork, and why your workload can be fine and then, as your realities change, become too much.

What is “Work?”

The underlying causes of overwork include lack of control, pace of work, responsibility for two or three jobs, reduced administrative support, multi-tasking, and frequent interruptions (Sloan Overwork). In other words, too many tasks done too quickly, and too many responsibilities crammed into too frantic a schedule. The solution involves determining the right amount of work given your unique work and personal realities.

What role do organizations and individuals play in establishing those parameters? Work teams need to be outcome-oriented, set more realistic deadlines, eliminate low-value work, and set parameters for contact outside of determined work hours (FWI). This can only be done on the work team level, and not organizationally, because each team is unique. Members, collectively, must analyze their work to create a solution suited to meeting their day-to-day objectives.

The role of the individual employee is trickier because not everyone in a work team may feel the same level of overwork. In fact, some people might not be feeling overworked at all. So simply relying on the work team to resolve overwork, without considering the work+life fit objectives of individual team members, isn’t going to be enough.

Each individual needs to step back and asked themselves “what do I want?” They must look at their tasks, responsibilities, and schedule to figure out how they could do things differently. Then, given the parameters proposed by the work team and what they want to accomplish, propose a plan. It’s very difficult for anyone but you to define your appropriate workload or to articulate how it could be changed or reduced.

Job Pressure and Personal Pressure: Will Work Ever Be “Done?”

Job pressure is defined as more work with less time and fewer people to do it. But in today’s 24/7 work reality, the work will never be “done.” All tasks will never be checked off the “to do” list. So, if there is never a point when the work will all be done, how can companies unilaterally determine the right amount of work, done in an appropriate amount of time, by a reasonable number of employees without direct input from the individuals tasked with completing it? They can’t.

And it’s not just external job pressure that causes problems, it’s the internal pressure we put on ourselves—expectations and assumptions about how, when and where we must work that are often never actually articulated by leaders in the organization. In other words, our personal definitions of “success” that often cause us to become our own worst enemy (See the Success Roadblock chapter in my book to learn more).

Again, companies need to do their part, but we as individuals need to play a much more active role in clarifying the expectations and assumptions that drive our work, and establish mutually-beneficial boundaries with our employers.

Finally, Generational Differences in “How” We Work

Baby boomers may report the highest levels of overwork, because their higher level jobs have more time-consuming responsibility, but I’ve made another observation. “Moving quickly from task to task with little time for recovery in between, facing interruptions, working outside normal work hours” are skills necessary for success in the global economy” (FWI). And, I’ve noticed that Gen-X and Gen-Y employees seem to be more comfortable with this type of multi-tasking, boundary less, 24/7 process than baby boomers, who tend to find it overwhelming and intrusive. To Gen-X and Yers, it’s second nature to manage and process numerous electronic inputs at one time. Employees under forty tend to manage technology more effectively, while many boomers struggle with technology managing them. Therefore, what would be considered technology-related “overwork” to a baby-boomer is just day-to-day reality for a younger employee. It’s all relative.

Bottom Line:

So, what’s the answer to overwork? The answer is that there isn’t one answer. Because “overwork” is in the eye of the beholder, so is the solution. Yes, companies must change, but it’s not that simple. As with everything related to work+life “fit,” companies play a role but so do individuals. The answer will be found on the work team level through an employee-employer partnership.

Join me Tuesday, May 2nd for the next Work+Life Fit Blog!


2 thoughts on “What is Overwork? The Answer is Not as Straight-forward as You Think

  1. This idea of what is work and what is overwork is very interesting. I work very fast in short extremely productive bursts, but cannot stay in an office past five (I start to feel physically stressed). I remember years ago I worked with a woman who would stop at my desk and complain about how she was going to have to come in over the weekend she had so much to do. I used to think, “You know, if you would have just worked the past twenty minutes instead of standing here complaining, maybe you wouldn’t have to come in.” Your observation of GenX and GenY is also very interesting. I just turned 40–so right on the edge, but have been able to embrace the newer multi-task workstyle. Right now I’m sending this comment while listening in on a conf call that has gone off-topic.

  2. Agree!! (Especially with the conference call going south). Like Juliana, I’m very productive with my work and get a lot done in a little time. Or, I start work at 6a with lunch at my desk and try to call it a day or a break at 3 or 4. But it is the person that is working to 5 or past 5 that appears to be the hard workers, even if the rest of us who work differently are getting more done.

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