The happy worker–productive worker hypothesis suggests that employees high in well-being also perform well. Therefore, it is possible that if we understand employee well-being, we will also understand how employees can become more productive.
We all talk about well-being, but what is it exactly?
Well-being is multidimensional. It is defined as an individual’s state of mental, physical and general health. It comprises both psychological outcomes, such as stress and depression, and physiological outcomes, such as blood pressure and physical exhaustion. An employee’s experience of work and life satisfaction as well as their happiness are also proxies for well-being. To better understand the happy worker-productive worker relationship, we need to first establish the important antecedents of employee well-being. This way firms and employers will have better guidance as to what they can do in order to have workers who are happy, healthy and, at the same time, productive.
Looking at prior research, there are many factors that may negatively affect employee well-being, including work intensification, uncertainty at work, as well as human resource practices that, in principal, are supposed to be beneficial for the employees. For example, in the case of flexible working arrangements, employees working from home often report feelings of loneliness and reduced job satisfaction.
A recurring factor that stands out as an important antecedent of employee well-being is excessive work effort.
Work effort can manifest itself along two dimensions. The first is extensive work effort such as overtime work, which captures the amount of time an employee works more than normal hours. The second dimension of work effort is work intensity, which refers to the level of effort supplied per unit of working time. There is abundant evidence showing that individuals who work extensively or intensively experience negative well-being outcomes such as stress, fatigue, burnout, exhaustion, illness, and reduced satisfaction.
Lack of recovery is one of the main reasons that could explain reduced productivity
If employee well-being is reduced because of excessive work effort, then how will this affect employee productivity?
Probably negatively. In our recent study with Hans Frankort from Cass Business School, we explain that lack of recovery is one of the main reasons that could explain reduced productivity. Working overtime reduces the amount of time an employee has available to take rest and recover, while work intensity reduces opportunities for recovery during the working day. If an employee works extensively, intensively, or both, then lack of recovery accumulates over time and ultimately decreases an employee’s ability to perform at adequate levels and deliver quality work. Employees who work excessively are often tired, and tired employees are less alert and more prone to making mistakes.
However, despite the detrimental effects of excessive effort, people keep doing it. This way, employees may signal their value and dedication to the organization. They often work excessively in order to have better chances at career advancement, gain social recognition and praise, and avoid losing their job.
But will this hard work pay off?
Probably not. In our study, we analysed data on almost 52,000 employees representing the European workforce in 2010 and 2015, with the objective of comparing the well-being and career-related implications of their work effort. We found that employees who invest more effort in their work report higher levels of stress and fatigue along with lower job satisfaction. But they also report experiencing less job security, receiving less recognition and fewer growth opportunities. So increased work effort not only predicts reduced well-being, it even predicts inferior career-related outcomes. Although these results were attenuated for employees who have discretion over how and when work should be done, they remained negative. If employees work harder in order to have better chances for career progression, social recognition, or job security, then they might find out that their aspirations may not be met.
Is excessive work effort ever positive for employee well-being?
In another study recently published in Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society, Madrid campus professor Almudena Cañibano and I examine whether extrinsic and intrinsic motivations to work overtime are related differently to well-being. Employee motivations are extrinsic when employees are driven to work long hours for reasons such as financial success, pressure, social contagion (i.e., I do it because others do it, If I leave early it looks bad), or praise. Instead, intrinsic motivation exists when employees work long hours because they are inherently driven to do so, for example, because they are committed or like to learn.
Our results show that work effort can have a negative impact on well-being if it is driven by extrinsic motivators. Being enticed or pressured to work extensively by external drivers makes individuals more likely to suffer psychological distress. In contrast, when intrinsic motivators, such as the search for growth and learning, drive work effort, long work hours are either not harmful to well-being or even beneficial because they contribute to fulfilling fundamental individual needs. So, the answer is yes, excessive work effort expressed as overtime seems not to be so detrimental to employee well-being when employees do it because they are intrinsically motivated.
What can a manager do?
Drawing on our findings, managers looking to preserve well-being should lead by example. They should encourage environments in which excessive work is not a norm but only used by exception, in order to provide flexibility to the employees and the company to respond to urgent and unexpected tasks or during high demand periods. Otherwise, if employees need to work constantly under pressure then their well-being will deteriorate. And an unhappy employee is a less productive employee.
Also, managers should be encouraged not only to design HR practices that protect well-being, such as discretion mechanisms, but also practices and jobs that arouse intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. Providing some discretion over how and when work should be done as well as creating meaningful work experiences will help employee well-being. This way, at times when employees have to work harder, their well-being, and in turn productivity, will be better preserved.
In other words . . .
Feature photo credit: Undrey – stock.adobe.com.