The hidden overwork that creeps into so many jobs

Like Cambon, Christina Maslach, professor of psychology emerita at University of California, Berkeley, also thinks these kinds of tasks can have a positive impact – that is, if workers ensure they’re getting something back from this extra work, instead of just doing them for the sake of it. 

“The question is, ‘how is this actually making a difference?’,” says Maslach. For instance, she says, do you feel more prepared? Are you becoming more engaged with your work? Was all your meeting prep effective, since you impressed your boss, and now you’re up for a promotion? Then, she believes, it may be worth it – in moderation. 

Robert, a trainee solicitor in London, is one worker who says he’s reaped the benefits of these outside-work tasks. “When I first started my job, I would read a work-related blog outside of work hours, because I wanted to be able to talk to people at the office about work-related stuff,” he says. Robert says this kind of overwork helped him connect with the higher-ups, and made him feel more confident as he started a new career track. 

However, for many, this overwork no longer feels like a choice – and that’s when things go bad. This can especially be the case, says Cambon, when these off-hours tasks become another form of presenteeism – for instance, an employee reading a competitor’s website and sharing links in a messaging channel at night, just so they can signal to their boss they’re always on. “We’re seeing… more employees who feel monitored by their organisations, and then feel like they have to put in extra hours,” she says. 

As such, this hidden overwork can do a lot of potential damage if it becomes an unspoken requirement. “If there’s more expectation and burden associated with it, that’s where people are going to have negative consequences,” says Nancy Rothbard, management professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, US. “That’s where it becomes tough on them.” 

Although the experts say it’s OK if the work side of the scale is slightly heavier for a bit of time, when that imbalance grows too big or lasts too long, people can find their mental health and wellness in trouble. “You’re not getting to use parts of your life for other things that mean something to you, because it all has to keep going into the workplace jar,” says Maslach. “If it becomes a more chronic kind of lifestyle, it can lead to this more negative, full-blown burnout.”

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