We’re often told that working hard is the key to success. From a young age, it is drilled into us that working harder is equivalent to working better – and that knuckling down is the way to advance your career.
Going the “extra mile” at work, whether it’s helping colleagues, taking on extra responsibilities or staying late most nights, is believed to be a good thing. Many of us are living – and working – under the assumption that harder work leads us to be more engaged and satisfied with our jobs and leads to more promotions and ultimately, more money.
However, a growing body of research suggests that this isn’t necessarily true. In fact, studies suggest that going above and beyond at work does the exact opposite – and comes at a cost to both our personal lives and our careers.
Going beyond a job description is a source of pride for many conscientious workers. In an increasingly competitive world, workers are encouraged to take on additional responsibilities, work through their breaks and stay late, in order to prove their worth to their employers and succeed.
There are many reasons why having a strong work ethic is seen as the ultimate virtue in our modern society. Late capitalism – now a catch-all phrase for the absurdities and injustices of our contemporary economy – encompasses our obsession with hard work, and the view of “idleness” as the ultimate sin.
However, there’s a growing gap between worker output and worker remuneration. When we’re working hard and striving for success, we rely on our employers to see that and to reward us appropriately. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. People are working longer, harder and more efficiently, but are receiving less and less in return – and paying the price with their health.
Studies have shown that employees who work beyond the boundaries of their job roles are at increased risk of mental health problems. In 2016, researchers at the University of Bath and King’s College London found that doing more than the minimum required was directly linked to higher levels of emotional exhaustion and “work-family conflict.”
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This was especially true of those who carried out their responsibilities at a high level, the researchers found. The more effort people put into their work, the greater the impact on their personal lives – and the greater the negative impact on their wellbeing.
Another study by City University London and ESCP Europe Business School, published in the Industrial and Labour Relations Review, reported similar findings. The researchers examined data on nearly 52,000 employees from 36 European countries (and across different industries) between 2010 and 2015, comparing the impact of work effort on wellbeing and career-related outcomes.
Employees who put more effort into their work reported higher levels of stress and exhaustion, along with lower job satisfaction. However, they also reported fewer advancement opportunities, less job security and less recognition, too. Regardless of factors such as gender, age, occupation, education and authorities, the researchers found, excessive work appeared to worsen both career outcomes and wellbeing.
Although working harder is believed to boost our career advancement and pay, overwork negatively impacts our ability to recuperate mentally and physically. And when we’re tired, our chances of making mistakes increase too. Overall, the researchers suggest, this outweighs whatever might be gained by signaling our dedication to the company through that extra effort.
“Overtime work prolongs an employee’s exposure to workplace stressors and, by shortening the periods when an employee rests, decreases the ability to recover between working days,” the researchers explain.
“Work intensity instead reduces or eliminates gaps between tasks during which the body or mind can rest, thus decreasing the employee’s ability to recover during working days. A lack of recovery between or during working days may have cumulative effects because a fatigued employee requires progressively more effort to maintain adequate performance.”
This doesn’t mean the positives of working hard should be ignored entirely, though. If employees are rewarded fairly for their efforts and encouraged to keep boundaries between their work and personal lives, hard work can boost people’s motivation, confidence and sense of fulfilment at work. However, it’s important to consider the price we pay for our hard work – and in the end, whether it is really worth it.