Heavy Workloads: Much More Than Just a Nuisance

Topic: Stress, Wellness, Work Environment
Publication: Personnel Psychology (Summer 2010)
Article: Psychological and physiological reactions to high workloads: Implications for well-being
Authors: R. Ilies, N. Dimotakis, and I.E. De Pater
Reviewed By: Benjamin Granger

In a rather unique study by Ilies, Dimotakis and De Pater (2010), the authors found that heavy workloads can have negative psychological (distress) and physiological (blood pressure) effects that fluctuate depending on an employee’s daily workload.  The authors also investigated how daily changes in workload affect employees’ daily well-being when they get home from work.

Ilies et al. employed a sample of 64 technical, clerical and administrative employees at a large U.S. university. Employees were given PDAs and an apparatus to measure their blood pressure at several time points throughout the day for a period of two weeks.  On days in which employees reported having higher workloads, they also experienced higher levels of distress at work and had higher blood pressure readings. Higher workloads were also associated with lower perceptions of well-being at the end of the work day.

The good news is that the unfavorable effects of workload tend to be much less dramatic for employees who perceive that they have more control over their work and employees who perceive that their organization values their contributions (i.e., perceived organizational support).

On the other hand, heavy workloads seem to have a very serious effect on employees who have little control over their work and feel that the organization does not value their work.

One important implication of Ilies et al.’s findings is that workload may ultimately lead to very serious psychological and physical health issues in the long run (e.g., increased blood pressure can lead to cardiovascular disease).  While it seems that our workloads continue to increase over time, organizations should note that the greater degree of control employees have over their work and the degree to which their employees feel that they support them and value their contributions seems to diminish the negative effects of heavy workloads.

Ilies, R., Dimotakis, N., & De Pater, I.E. (2010). Psychological and physiological reactions to high workloads: Implications for well-being. Personnel Psychology, 63(2), 407-436.