There is little doubt that having too much to do at work can be overwhelming and stressful. Excessive demands can be exhausting and lead to anxiety, frustration, and burnout. But what about having a cushy job with few demands? A new article by Shani Pindek, Zhiqing Zhou, Stacey Kessler, Alexandra Krajcevska and Paul Spector, published in the peer-reviewed journal Work & Stress might have the answer. This research indicates that work overload and underload are both stressful.
Workload and Stress
Workload refers to the level of effort required over time. There are several aspects to workload that we can consider.
- The volume of work that needs to be done in a work shift, such as the number of boxes that have to be loaded into a truck.
- The difficulty of the work, such as how heavy each box is.
- The intensity of the work, how quickly you have to load the truck.
- The pace of the work–do you get frequent breaks or have to work continuously.
- The number of hours worked in a day (8, 10, or 12+) or week (40, 50, or 60+)
Workload has been linked to work stress in many studies–Nathan Bowling and colleagues found more than 100 studies that they included in their meta-analysis. Having a heavy workload is associated with emotional distress, burnout, and physical symptoms (backache, headache, sleep problems, and stomach upset). Most of these studies looked mainly at work overload–having too much to do at work.
Work Overload and Underload Are Both Stressful
Pindek and her colleagues studied 137 state government employees over a period of two work weeks, tracking their workload and stress. For nine days employees completed surveys three times per day. After work they indicated their workload for the day, before bed they indicated the extent to which they had been continuing to think (ruminate) about the workday after their shift ended, and the next morning they indicated their mood–whether they were experiencing negative emotions like anger or anxiety.
Where most workload studies looked at linear relationships, that is, whether the greater the workload the greater the stress, these researchers looked at curvilinear relationships. This showed if both high and low levels of workload might relate to high levels of rumination and negative emotion. The results showed that both work overload and underload were stressful. On days when workload was high and days when workload was low, rumination after work and negative emotion the next day were higher than when workloads were in the middle. They concluded that days of high and low workload resulted in people having a hard time leaving work at work when they got home, and continued to think about it in a negative way. They woke up the next morning in a negative mood. These findings suggest that where workload is concerned, there is an intermediate “sweet spot” that provides enough to do so that you aren’t bored, but not so much to do that you feel overloaded. Balancing workloads for employees can be a difficult thing to do, but it is important so that employee efforts can be used most efficiently, while minimizing unnecessary stress.
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