Today, we’re facing an epidemic of overworked employees. Being overworked causes employee experience to plummet. And being overworked is a problem around the world—though not a new one. In Japan, the trend of overwork began in the 1950s. And Mexico tops the list of countries with overworked employees, with 28.7% working more than 50 hours per week.
Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2023 report, released on June 14, 2023, showed that 52% of Canadian and U.S. employees experience substantial stress at work. The two countries tie for first place with the most highly stressed employees in the world.
In the U.S., a heavy workload is the main cause of stress at work, reports the American Institute of Stress. According to its data, 62% of U.S. workers are highly stressed. Often they suffer from extreme fatigue and overwhelm. This has a substantial impact on productivity: 34% of employees lose 1 hour or more of productivity due to stress each day.
Being overworked also causes more mistakes on the job and lowers quality of work. Moreover, being overworked has serious health implications, as we’ll discuss below.
Table of Contents
Understanding Overworked Employees
Let’s examine the main causes of this issue, its consequences, and other key facts.
Reasons for Overworked Employees
Multiple factors contribute to the culture of overwork in our society. First, there’s the tendency to glorify overworking and not sleeping enough, the BBC notes. We often view it as showing devotion to a company or passion for a job. In some companies, there’s an underlying sense of competition around overwork: Who is the most committed?
Plus, the Great Resignation cut the size of many teams. With workplaces struggling to fill positions, the remaining employees often find themselves overburdened.
The requirements of individual companies and bosses also factor into the issue of overworked employees. Does management encourage or ask for frequent overtime hours? Are workloads unreasonable? Employees may view overwork as an essential step toward a promotion.
Additionally, companies today are falling prey to “productivity paranoia”: The fear that remote employees aren’t working hard enough, since their efforts are less visible. In response, employees go the extra mile to prove their dedication.
Consequences of Having Overworked Employees
In the long-term, having overworked employees can have serious consequences for a company. First, it causes performance to decline. Second, it can lead to high attrition—or even a mass exodus of employees. And with a reputation for overworking employees, it’s hard to attract new ones.
Overworked employees also face critical health risks. Being overworked can have negative effects on diet and exercise. Frequently, overworked employees don’t eat an optimal diet, causing weight loss or weight gain. And employees may spend most of their time at a desk, unable to find time for exercise.
Moreover, the stress of being overworked increases risk of coronary artery disease, injuries related to repetitive strain, and other health conditions. Anxiety and depression often affect chronically overworked employees as well.
Overworked vs. Burnout
The problems of overwork and burnout are different but closely related. Being overworked can definitely lead to burnout, but overworked employees haven’t always burned out yet.
Burnout has the following characteristics:
- Indifference or cynicism toward one’s work
- Reduced effectiveness on the job
Additionally, burnout can have different causes:
- Being overworked
- Not feeling valued or having the desired impact
- Having a toxic workplace culture
Being overworked is an extremely common cause of burnout. With an unmanageable workload, employees will become exhausted and frustrated. For some, this happens quickly. Others may work unreasonable hours for months or years before they finally reach their breaking point.
Statistics on Overworked Employees
These statistics reveal just how pervasive the issue of overworked employees is.
- Among U.S. employees, 54% miss 1–2 workdays per year because of stress. And 31% miss 3–6 workdays, while 15% miss more than 6 days, reports the American Institute of Stress.
- In the U.K., 56% of companies are working below full capacity due to a shortage of employees, the BBC reports.
- Working 55 or more hours per week increases risk of stroke by 35%, says the World Health Organization (WHO). And the risk of dying of heart disease rises by 17%, in comparison to working 35–40 hours per week.
- People in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific face the greatest health risks from overwork, while people in Europe face the least, NPR reports.
Quotes about Overworked Employees
- “Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.” ― Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture
- “The wise rest at least as hard as they work.” ― Mokokoma Mokhonoana
- “Burnout is not the price you have to pay for success.” — Arianna Huffington
- “Burnout is a symptom of neglect, not a badge of honor.” — Kristin Armstrong
Now, let’s turn to how to spot overworked employees.
Signs and Symptoms of Overworked Employees
Watch out for these warning signs of overworked employees:
- They skip lunch or eat at their desk.
- They seem short-tempered or frequently engage in conflict.
- They send and answer emails and texts at any hour of the day.
- They seem anxious and stressed.
- They have trouble focusing.
- They seem constantly tired and rely heavily on caffeine.
- They rarely mention hobbies or “fun time” outside of work.
- The quality or quantity of their work is suffering.
- They seem less invested in their work than usual.
- They’ve begun procrastinating more often.
“While it sounds counterintuitive, overworking makes you less productive. That’s because you spread yourself so thin that it becomes difficult to focus properly on any task,” writes Forbes. So, if you notice productivity plummeting after a period of extreme busy-ness, employees are likely overworked.
Also remember that responses to overwork will vary widely. Some people will become more withdrawn; others may become more confrontational.
Solutions for Overworked Employees
Be proactive about helping overworked employees find balance. This can require big changes in how you manage people.
First and foremost, don’t look at being overworked as an individual problem. “Burnout is about your organization, not your people,” asserts Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It. “Yoga, vacation time, wellness tech, and meditation apps can help people feel optimized, healthier. But when it comes to preventing burnout, suggesting that these tools are the cure is dangerous.”
Let’s review some strategies for truly helping employees recover from being overworked.
Identify High- and Low-Priority Goals.
Identify which goals are lower-priority—or less urgent—suggests Berkeley Greater Good Magazine. Then, people won’t push themselves too hard to achieve them now. Lower-priority goals are things they can build toward gradually. Then, set strong goals around high priorities.
Set a Maximum Number of Hours.
Agree with each employee on a maximum number of hours to work per week. Make sure each person on a team is working a similar number of hours. Hold people to these commitments.
Use Performance Management Tools
Use performance management software to help overworked employees manage their time. These tools provide a reality check that will quell productivity paranoia. Managers will see exactly what employees are accomplishing during work hours.
More importantly, goal-tracking software will help employees stay on task by highlighting current priorities. And seeing their progress and results will increase motivation.
Optimize Everyday Stress
Encourage each employee to find their “optimal” level of stress, designing a workload tailored to it. They should have stretch goals and professional development objectives supported by strong KPIs. But responsibilities should also feel manageable.
This practice will help employees push themselves and then mentally recover, like an athlete in training, says McKinsey. If they aren’t able to enter the recovery state, efforts to stretch their abilities will backfire.
“Through practice, we can learn to move deliberately between an engaged state, where we’re energized, focused, creative, and productive, and a recovery state, where our brain processes events, learns, and recuperates,” writes McKinsey.
Encourage employees to take small breaks throughout the workday to support recovery. Getting a change of scenery by taking a walk can help employees recharge, too.
Make Plans for After Work
Making after-work plans can help employees clock out at a set time. This can be as simple as planning to enjoy a hobby or go for a run. Having a plan in place will help establish a new routine.
Support Social Recovery
Strengthening social connections can boost mood and relieve stress, helping people recover from overwork. Encourage employees to take time for social interactions with coworkers. Rather than making this an after-work obligation, find ways to do this during the workday. Have a social lunch break, for example. Or start a practice of catching up while taking a walk—virtually or in person.
Encourage employees to build resilience through strategies like exercising, doing yoga, and meditating. These activities can help boost mental clarity, allowing employees to complete tasks more efficiently. Offering a designated space for this at work, or a subscription to virtual wellness classes, can support this goal.
How can organizations avoid the problem of overworked employees in the first place? We tackle that question next.
How to Avoid Overworking Employees
Addressing overwork must begin at the company level. Combat the culture of overwork through the following strategies.
Provide Direction for Managers.
A full 80% of managers want more direction from senior leadership to help them prioritize. Providing this guidance will help managers and teams focus on the most vital projects. As a result, they’ll minimize time spent on less important tasks.
Redesign Project Calendars
Do project calendars let teams devote their full focus to a given project? Or are they juggling numerous ones at once? Balancing a small number of projects at a time minimizes distractions and scheduling conflicts, while improving results. Teams will accomplish more, while experiencing less stress, as Margaret M. Luciano notes in Harvard Business Review.
Consider a Modified Work Week
Adopting a 4-day work week can bring massive benefits, researchers have found. Conducting trials with nearly 200 companies worldwide, they found that recruitment, retention, and revenue all benefitted. In the U.K., resignations dropped by 57%, The Boston Globe reports.
What’s more, most companies that have completed the trial have opted to continue the 4-day work week.
Set the Right Example
Leaders should avoid sending work communications during non-work hours. They should set clear expectations for when work should happen—and, most importantly, follow these rules themselves.
Find out how employees are feeling by regularly surveying them. Ask specific questions about workload, stress, and work/life balance. If job satisfaction is high, your efforts are paying off. If not, your surveys can highlight areas for improvement.
FAQs About Overworked Employees
Here are some commonly asked questions on this important topic.
Will the trend of overworked employees continue increasing?
Unfortunately, that’s highly likely. Gallup’s report shows that only 23% of employees are thriving at work. Meanwhile, 59% are “quiet quitting.” Stress has remained at a record high on par with the previous year. However, individual companies can set themselves apart from the crowd by making changes within.
What if leaders are resistant to change?
As their HR business partner, make the business case for healthy changes. Share the long-term negative effects of having overworked employees described above.
How can my company strengthen its reputation after changing its practices?
Be clear and specific in job descriptions about hours required per week. Lay out any changes you’ve made in scheduling or flexible options. Emphasize your commitment to employee wellbeing, mentioning related benefits. You could even write a blog post about your new practices. These steps will make a big difference in how candidates perceive you.
As you follow these practices, you’ll develop a healthier workplace culture that avoids overwork and burnout. Individual employees will benefit, finding a renewed enthusiasm for their work. And your company will benefit by retaining its top talent and boosting productivity!
See firsthand how performance management software can reduce overwork and burnout. Demo our product to learn how it can help.