Jobs and the Future of Work

How to manage work intensity and build a sustainable workplace

Oh no, not now! Stressed dark skinned man has much work in office, asked by many people at one time who remind about preparing business project, hold alarm clock, notepad with records, sits at desktop

Task uncertainty is a major predictor of higher work intensity. Image: Freepik.

Argyro Avgoustaki
Professor of Management, ESCP Business School
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Society & Future of Work

  • Recent analysis shows some employees are experiencing higher levels of work intensity, leading to less sustainable work.
  • Results also show that task uncertainty and certain human resource practices seem to be strong positive predictors of work intensity.
  • HR managers and those in leadership roles need to implement policies and practices that discourage work intensity.

In its Working Time Patterns for Sustainable Work report, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) defines sustainable work as existing when “working and living conditions are such that they support people in engaging and remaining in work throughout an extended working life,” which is often measured as “the ability to work up to 60 or later.” Working time and work intensity, two dimensions of work effort, are important elements of sustainable work. In the impact paper I wrote as part of ESCP Business School’s Better Business: Creating Sustainable Value series, I focus on the one type of work effort – work intensity – as an important element of unsustainable work, and examine some important antecedents of work intensity.

Why focus on work intensity?

Focusing on work intensity is imperative because of its harmful effects on employee health and general well-being, which appear to be worse than the effects of overtime work. In our study titled Implications of Work Effort and Discretion for Employee Well-Being and Career-Related Outcomes: An Integrative Assessment, and based on the 2010 and 2015 European Working Conditions Surveys (EWCS), Hans Frankort and I examined the implications of work effort, expressed both as overtime work and work intensity. We found that in regards to employee well-being, work intensity is associated with increased stress and fatigue, and decreased job satisfaction. Compared to overtime work, work intensity is generally a stronger predictor of unfavourable outcomes, even when employees have discretion to decide how and when to carry out their work.

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Who tends to suffer most from work intensity?

In an earlier study titled Work Uncertainty and Extensive Work Effort: The Mediating Role of Human Resource Practices, I examined how work uncertainty and the use of human resource practices are associated with overtime work using data from the 2005 and the 2010 EWCS. Here, I analyse a similar set of antecedents but I link them instead to work intensity. Specifically, I examine how employee characteristics (gender, age, tenure in the firm), human resource practices (training, teamwork, performance pay, task rotation, discretion), task uncertainty, working hours, and type of contract are associated with work intensity. The analysis is based on data from the two most recent waves of EWCS. The two waves contain a total of 87,666 individuals covering 34 countries in 2010; and 35 countries in 2015.

Effects of selected predictors on work intensity. Source: Work intensity and unsustainable work: Evidence from the European Working Conditions Survey, ESCP Business School.
Effects of selected predictors on work intensity. Source: Work intensity and unsustainable work: Evidence from the European Working Conditions Survey, ESCP Business School.

The results show that women tend to experience higher work intensity relative to men. Younger employees also tend to experience higher levels of work intensity compared to older employees. Furthermore, employees exposed to human resource practices such as employee-funded training, on-the-job training, teamwork, performance pay, and task rotation experience higher work intensity relative to employees who are not exposed to these practices. In contrast, employees who are provided human resource practices such as discretion to change task order and discretion to change speed of work seem to experience less work intensity compared to employees who do not have such discretion.

The predictor that stands out is task uncertainty, as employees who report having task uncertainty – defined as interruptions to their regular work tasks because of unforeseen tasks – experience higher work intensity than employees who do not face such uncertainty. Finally, employees who work more hours and those who do not have a permanent contract, seem to experience higher work intensity relative to employees who work fewer hours and ones without a permanent contract. The other variables, i.e., tenure in firm, employer-funded training and discretion to change work methods, do not seem to be associated with work intensity.

What can leaders do to alleviate work intensity?

Because research has shown that work intensity is related to negative employee outcomes, and particularly deteriorating health and well-being, human resource managers and those in leadership roles need to implement policies and practices that discourage work intensity while avoiding practices that encourage it. First, they need to be aware that certain human resource practices – pay for performance in particular – although possibly bringing performance gains, may also be counterproductive as the gains may come at the expense of the employee through higher work intensity. This implies a trade-off and therefore if managers want to build a more sustainable workforce, they need to be aware of some practices’ negative implications.

Have you read?

Other human resource practices such as discretion might not intensify work and may even decrease it. This suggests that managers should design jobs that allow flexibility, especially for the categories of employees that have been reporting higher levels of work intensity in their occupation. Based on the EWCS, blue collar employees seem to experience higher levels of work intensity relative to other types of occupations and, therefore, may benefit from having discretion over their tasks and the speed of their work.

A significant factor predicting higher work intensity is the amount of task uncertainty employees experience at work. Employees often face uncertainty because they have little or no information about their tasks, or because they are unable to predict the number and nature of tasks that need to be completed. Human resource managers and those in leadership roles should try to proactively manage employee workload and carefully plan the tasks that employees need to perform, while trying to avoid unnecessary interruptions of regular work or assigning them tasks that were unexpected. Some interruptions might be unavoidable, as oftentimes uncertainty is external and certain tasks or requests might be difficult to plan. Employees will probably be able to deal with such uncertainty, if it is the exception rather than the rule.

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