Health and Healthcare

Is it possible to sustain an intensive work culture?

Intensive work practices can be present in the office or when you're outside chopping wood.

Intensive work practices can be present in the office or when you're outside chopping wood. Image: Unsplash/Arlington Research

Argyro Avgoustaki
Professor of Management, ESCP Business School
Hans Frankort
Professor of Strategy, Bayes Business School (City, University of London)
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  • Peer pressure, tight deadlines or physically demanding tasks can transform any job into intensive work, adversely affecting employee well-being as severely as second-hand smoke or unemployment.
  • Employees do not necessarily perceive intensive work negatively, depending on their motivations.
  • Policymakers, employees and employers should understand how work intensity and motivation shape and impact work and workers to harness its benefits effectively.

As an employee in today’s market, several factors could lend to how satisfied you are with your job – the people, remuneration or a good work/life balance, for instance. On the opposite end of the scale, intensive work practices are a strong indicator of low job satisfaction and could even be the source of people’s intentions to quit.

And analysis shows that as some employees are experiencing higher levels of work intensity, this leads to less sustainable work and a host of other ills, including inferior well-being, stress and anxiety, backaches, insomnia and an increased risk of suicide. Work intensity might also have well-being ramifications as severe as second-hand smoke exposure or unemployment. What’s more, the problem is unlikely to dissipate soon.

Given the evidential impacts of sustained work intensification, it should feature highly on workers, employers and policymakers’ minds to cushion its detrimental effects. But is intensive work always negative?

Have you read?

Why work intensity matters

What do we mean when we talk about work intensity? Chopping wood, stacking corner shop shelves or drafting documents for a complex legal case – any of these tasks could render a job “intense” because work intensity refers to the rate of physical or mental input required to execute a job, how many simultaneous or sequential tasks are involved and the “porosity” of the working day, i.e. breaks between tasks for adequate mental and physical rest. The duration and content of the roles are less important in definitions.

Research suggests that employees performing intensive work differ in their ability to cope, particularly when jobs afford some latitude on how and when to complete tasks. Yet, while job discretion – a characteristic of the work environment – may buffer some of the adverse effects of work intensity, it only partially accounts for the observed variance in employee well-being attributable to intensive work.

To better understand these differences, broadening attention from job characteristics to individual motivations for engaging in intensive work and self-determination theory can help demystify the domain of work intensity.

Work intensity might ... have well-being ramifications as severe as second-hand smoke exposure or unemployment.

Argyro Avgoustaki, Professor of Management, ESCP Business School | Hans Frankort, Professor of Strategy, Bayes Business School (City, University of London)

Three motives for intensive working

Self-determination theory distinguishes between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation involves performing an activity to achieve a separable outcome, such as a verbal or tangible reward (salary) or avoiding punishment and criticism. Intrinsic motivation is more autonomous; it involves performing an activity because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable.

How does this approach apply to a work context?

  • Extrinsic motivation could see employees working intensively to cope with unavoidable job demands and excessive workload, perhaps due to downsizing or budget constraints.
  • Implicit incentives, such as the desire to earn a bonus, while still extrinsic, reflect greater autonomy.
  • Employees may be intrinsically motivated to work hard simply because they are interested in the job or enjoy the challenge.

According to self-determination theory, these motivations translate into varying levels of work-related well-being. Specifically, the greater the perception of relative autonomy, the more positively motivation is associated with employee well-being.

The general pattern observed across occupations – from petrol station employees to members of a finance-sector trade union – is that intrinsic motivation is associated with positive well-being. In contrast, extrinsic motivation is linked with negative well-being.

Finding the sweet spot

We can go further, however. In research by the ESCP and Bayes Business Schools, we hypothesized that intensive work driven by explicit or implicit incentives is more positively associated with employee job satisfaction and more negatively with intentions to quit than intensive work driven by job demands. Conversely, we expected intensive work driven by intrinsic motives to be more positively associated with employee job satisfaction and more negatively with intentions to quit than intensive work driven by explicit or implicit incentives.

To test our theory, we surveyed more than 600 employees across 15 branches of a major grocery chain in Greece, a setting where work intensity is high. After adjusting our results to account for job discretion, we found empirical support for our hypotheses.

Employers could ... design jobs and tasks to be enjoyable and interesting.

Argyro Avgoustaki, Professor of Management, ESCP Business School | Hans Frankort, Professor of Strategy, Bayes Business School (City, University of London)

The results give credence to the saying: “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” While it’s hard to guarantee you will never have to work, loving one’s occupation means curbing any longing to quit.

That is why the same advice holds for workers and employers – that there is a benefit to understanding a worker’s motives for considering intensive work. From a well-being standpoint, jobs involving employees who are intrinsically motivated to work intensively are preferable to those where only incentives or demands of the job dictate their motivation.

It also serves employers to be mindful of how motivation for work intensity impacts individuals. Employers could also design jobs and tasks to be enjoyable and interesting to stimulate intrinsic motivation. For instance, employers could identify candidates more likely to be intrinsically motivated to work hard because of their interest in the job.

That motivation will make them more productive employees and ensure their longevity with the organization.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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