Work Overload and Job Demands Lead to Lower Professional Standards

Work overload and job demands have been infamously related to many workplace problems, for both employees and employers. However, most research views work overload as something that builds over time, perhaps weeks, months, or years, and can lead to harmful effects that are measured over the long-term. New research (Dai, Milkman, Hofmann, & Staats, 2015) clearly shows that work overload is something that can accumulate over the course of a single workday, and have immediate harmful effects.


In today’s world of work, increased job demands are a common theme. Many workers experience extreme pressure to meet deadlines or to perform work of a certain quality. Other workers may experience role ambiguity, which is when they aren’t sure what they are supposed to do or which boss to listen to. Others—especially in the service industry—may experience emotional strain from the constant need to regulate their emotions. Finally, “work overload” is probably experienced by most people at times. There is simply too much to do!

Researchers have usually found that when job demands are high, employees start cutting corners and focusing only on the parts of the job that they deem to be essential. Secondary duties tend to fall by the wayside in an effort by employees to conserve their remaining mental resources. Secondary duties are things that employees don’t get directly rewarded for, or aren’t viewed as contributing to the main purpose of the job. 


The setting for this study was the health-care industry. Researchers used tracking devices to monitor hand-washing compliance among over 4,000 health-care providers in 35 hospitals. Hand washing is vitally important for reducing the number of patient infections, and it is also something that research shows does not occur as often as it should; the overall rate of compliance has been documented at less than 50%.

The researchers also explain that health-care providers are a perfect sample for studying what happens due to increased job demands. Has anyone met a nurse or doctor who claims they have an easy and undemanding job? 


Results of the study show that as the workday goes on, employees washed their hands increasingly less often. This effect was even stronger for employees who experienced a high level of work demands. Overall, the rate of hand-washing was reduced by almost 9% from the start of a shift to the end of a shift. This may sound like a trivial amount, but it is not. The authors estimate that, based on the total number of hospitals in the US, this decrease in hand-washing could lead to 600,000 infections per year, costing $12.5 billion, and leading to 35,000 additional deaths.

The authors also investigated how time off in between shifts can help employees recover from high work demands. They found that when employees had more time off between shifts, they had a small increase in overall hand-washing compliance during the next shift. The positive effects of time off were also more pronounced when employees ended their previous shift with very low levels of hand-washing compliance. In other words, if employees had unusually high job demands, they benefitted more from time off than ordinary employees.

Finally, the researchers considered the amount of hours an employee has already worked during the week. Fitting with the overall theme, employees who had worked more hours during the previous week washed their hands even less than other employees as the workday went on. On the other hand, these overworked employees benefitted most from more time off between shifts. 


This study clearly shows that the harmful effects of increased job demands and work overload can happen quicker than previously thought. Over the course of a single day, performance of important work-related tasks can suffer, especially those tasks that are viewed by employees as non-essential. Although this study presents a worst-case scenario by focusing on employees directly affecting life and death outcomes, the message applies to all jobs. All jobs require their employees to live up to professional standards, say the authors. These standards are readily compromised when job demands are too high. Which professional standards could be cast aside in your organization?

This study also displays the benefits of appropriate amounts of time off between shifts or workdays, and also makes a case against working an exceedingly high number of hours per week. Employees given time to replenish their mental resources seem to do better at maintaining the professional standards expected of them.

Hengchen, D., Milkman, K. L., Hofmann, D.A., & Staats, B. R.. (2014). The Impact of Time at Work and Time Off From Work on Rule Compliance: The Case of Hand Hygiene in Health Care. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(5), 846-862.