Skip to main content
The Employee Experience Platform | Culture Amp
Overwork leads to burnout
Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Writer, Culture Amp

You want your team to work hard. But when it comes to work hours, more isn’t necessarily better. When employees put in too much time, it leads to feeling overworked – and research shows it’s an increasingly common phenomenon:

  • 33% of workers feel continually exhausted because of work pressure
  • 44% of U.S. employees say they feel overworked
  • 50% of full-time employees say they’re working more than 40 hours a week

The pandemic drew more attention to flexibility and work-life balance, but ironically enough, it also skyrocketed our work hours. The average employee clocked in an extra two hours a day when they were sent home to work from their couches and kitchen tables.

And while work schedules appear to be leveling out now, the data doesn’t lie: Many employees are still feeling the strain of chronic overwork.

What’s the problem with working more than 40 hours a week?

According to the American Institute of Stress, an impressive 80% of workers say they feel stress on the job – so it’s easy to normalize stress as a predictable standard of the working world.

Sure, a little bit of stress is normal from time to time. But when workloads balloon beyond reasonability, work schedules extend out into eternity, and employees feel like they’re constantly saddled under impossible expectations, chronic overwork seems like the only way for them to keep their heads above water. That’s when these big problems start to surface.

1. Overwork increases employee burnout

Workers can only keep the pedal to the floor for so long before they burn themselves out. Research from McKinsey found that a quarter of employees are currently experiencing burnout symptoms.

Many employers don’t deal with employee burnout until it’s a rampant problem – which means work quality has already suffered, workers feel increasingly depleted, and team morale is at an all-time low.

That sense of detachment and discouragement can spread throughout the team and harm your culture, which causes even bigger problems like rampant turnover. According to MIT Sloan Management Review, a toxic culture is the top driver of employee attrition.

2. Overwork sabotages performance

You might think that longer hours mean getting more done, but the opposite is actually true. In a study conducted by Slack, employees who logged off at the end of the workday registered 20% higher productivity scores than those who felt obligated to work after hours.

And when science says that five hours is roughly the maximum amount of time someone can concentrate on work, putting in overtime isn’t serving productivity. If anything, it’s holding your team back.

Being overworked in the workplace means that less work is getting done as well as lower-quality work. In one study that looked at computer activity and typing speed, workers made the most typos in afternoons. That was especially true on Friday afternoons, proving that employees were feeling sapped of their energy and focus.

That lack of concentration and attention means more potentially costly mistakes and errors. In a separate study of medical residents, working one or more extended shifts in a month was associated with an alarming 84% increased risk of medical errors.

3. Overwork harms your employees

From reduced productivity to increased turnover, employees who are overworked at work have a meaningful impact on your organization’s performance and bottom line. However, the effects of overworking are perhaps most detrimental to your employees themselves.

A study conducted by the World Health Organization concluded that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease compared to working 35-40 hours per week.

Overworking also prevents employees from maintaining healthy habits, such as prioritizing quality sleep, eating a balanced diet, or getting enough exercise.

Add all of that together, and it’s not just physical wellbeing and routines that suffer – employees’ mental health dips too, with 76% of employees agreeing that workplace stress affects their mental health.

What can employers do to address and minimize overwork?

Chronic overwork is detrimental to your employees, your team, and your entire organization. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to right the ship and get your employees back to a place where their work lives feel manageable.

1. Understand the signs of overwork

Moving forward, ideally, you’ll take a more proactive approach to keep overwork at bay – rather than jumping into action when you notice it’s already crept up on your team.

However, if you’re playing a little bit of catch-up, then it’s crucial to know how to recognize the signs that employees are feeling overworked, including:

  • Reduced productivity
  • More errors, mistakes, or reduced quality of work
  • High levels of absenteeism or lateness
  • Decreased morale
  • Increased irritability
  • High turnover

Overwork often leads to burnout, which means the two have a lot of overlapping symptoms. So, it’s worth reading up on the signs of burnout and how to help your team.

If you’re worried about missing a waving red flag that your employees feel spread thin, make overwork a regular talking point. By consistently touching on it in your 1-on-1 meetings and including specific questions about demands and workloads in your employee surveys, you’ll get valuable data you can use to ensure people aren’t starting to feel overloaded.

2. Confirm reasonable expectations and workloads

According to research from McKinsey, “Many employers focus on individual-level interventions that remediate symptoms rather than resolve the causes of employee burnout.”

Put simply, you don’t want to put a bandaid on a bullet wound here – you need to dig deep to understand not just if employees feel overworked but why they feel that way.

In an ADP Research Institute study, employer expectations, deadlines, and workloads were the top drivers of an overwork culture. So, it’s important to look closely at your employee responsibilities to confirm that nobody is overburdened.

It’s also worth revisiting your performance management processes to ensure employees have clarity about what they need to focus on to be successful in their roles. Doing so helps them stay focused on the most important elements of their positions and prioritize accordingly among their assignments and commitments. And, of course, managers should step in and help employees reprioritize when they need additional guidance.

3. Provide relevant training to managers

When a Society of Human Resource Management study found that 84% of workers say poorly-trained managers create a lot of unnecessary work and stress, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of equipping managers with the education and resources they need to:

  • Recognize the signs of overwork
  • Monitor and manage workloads and priorities
  • Handle difficult conversations about overwork, burnout, stress, and mental health
  • Take steps to address overwork and manage burnout
  • Advocate for their direct reports’ needs and wellbeing

On top of that, company leaders should also lead by example by exhibiting healthy behaviors and avoiding overworking themselves. Encourage them to be vocal and transparent about the times they need to reconfigure their own workloads, push back on unreasonable expectations, or take advantage of workplace flexibility for their personal obligations. After all, cultures are more often modeled than mandated.

What if you’re the one feeling overworked?

Just because you’re a manager doesn’t mean you’re immune to overwork yourself. In fact, according to recent research, more than half of managers admit to feeling burned out – meaning they’re experiencing it at a rate even greater than that of their direct reports.

It can be tempting to swallow your concerns while convincing yourself it’s in the best interest of your team or your organization. But the reality is that you can only spin your wheels for so long before you (and your team) are left to deal with the consequences.

So, if you’re the one feeling stretched to the max at work, here are some steps you can take to get yourself back to more reasonable expectations.

1. Have a candid conversation with your manager

Don’t suffer in silence. Approach your supervisor to let them know that you’re spread thin and need their guidance to bring some balance back to your work life. While being vulnerable can be difficult, your leader can’t help if they don’t know what’s wrong.

2. Identify your real priorities

Today’s managers are often saddled with unreasonable workloads. But ultimately, if everything is a priority, nothing is. Whether you talk with your manager, use a priorities matrix, or both, get some clarity about what you need to focus on, what can be delayed, what can be delegated, and what can fall off your priority list entirely.

Remember to revisit your team’s goals and the organization’s objectives to align your efforts with those. That will help you focus your time and attention on the most meaningful work, without feeling burdened with all of the other less consequential tasks. If you’re stuck, your supervisor should be able to help you categorize your workload accordingly.

3. Readjust your work schedule

Chronic overwork usually goes hand-in-hand with long hours. Is more than 40 hours a week overtime? Technically, yes. While overtime typically only matters for hourly (and not salaried) employees, fairly recent Department of Labor legislation does allow certain salaried workers to be eligible for overtime pay.

Paycheck aside, if you’ve been burning the midnight oil and signing on during weekends, it’s time to recalibrate. Set hard boundaries with yourself (such as signing off every night at 5 p.m.) and stick with those. Communicate those boundaries with your manager so they’re in the loop and can help keep you accountable.

Overworking and underperforming: The paradox of feeling overworked

It’s easy to think of work as a numbers game – working more hours means getting more accomplished. But plenty of research proves that longer hours have the opposite effect, leading to lower productivity, reduced accuracy, and majorly stressed out employees.

And while you might be tempted to wait and see if things improve on their own (“Next quarter won’t be quite this busy!”), overwork isn’t something that you can ride out. Failing to take action can tank your culture, destroy your own morale, and push your best employees out the door.

Put the above tips into practice, and you’ll help yourself and your employees manage workloads that are sustainable rather than relentlessly stressful.

Illustration of three hands holding arrows pointing in different directions with lines suggesting movement

Ready to empower your managers?

Equip your leaders with the tools they need to support their teams and drive impact at scale.

See how we can help

What’s next

Build a world-class employee experience today

Your browser is out of date. Our website is built to provide a faster, more engaging experience. Your browser may not support all of our features. Please update to the latest version of Microsoft Edge or contact your network administrator.

Close browser update banner