The dangers of overworking

Remote workers are especially vulnerable to exhaustion from 'always on' work, pandemic fatigue, and burnout.


A strong work ethic is a positive trait in any employee. Still, the tendency to go the extra mile – combined with a culture that glamorizes overwork – is harming employees at alarming rates. Despite long-established guidelines, a lack of monitoring and a pervasive long-hours culture are combining to produce widespread burnout among today’s workforces.

Remote workers face particular risks when it comes to overworking. During the pandemic, the shift to home offices provided much-needed flexibility for knowledge workers and has proved remote teams can be just as productive or even more productive than their office-based counterparts. Research shows that remote teams are working longer and spending hours saved on commuting to log more hours. However, remote workers are becoming especially vulnerable to exhaustion from 'always on' work, pandemic fatigue, and burnout.

Mounting evidence highlights how overwork-related fatigue puts workers at risk. Employees are 61 percent more likely to incur an injury when working overtime. Working 55 hours or more per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease. And workers who sit for prolonged periods are at elevated risk of early death from any cause.

What's the business impact?

Businesses too often take the gamble of hefty OSHA fines to overwork employees. And it's to nobody's benefit. A Stanford study found that productivity declines sharply after 50 hours a week, and after 55 hours, productivity drops so much that putting in any more hours would be pointless. At the same time, overwork-related fatigue is responsible for poor performance on the job, work-related accidents, and mental and physical illness.

When people burn out, they disengage from their work, make poor decisions, and experience compassion fatigue. They have higher rates of absenteeism, and many eventually quit their jobs.

Between 2020 and 2021, more than a quarter of American workers changed employers in the Great Reshuffling at a cost to employers of up to twice each employee's annual salary. (Our turnover calculator can give an estimate for your business.) And, that's before we consider the intellectual capital that walks out the door when good employees leave.

In today's tight labor market, that's a cost few firms can afford.

What can employers do about it?

An effective wellbeing strategy combines physical offerings like health assessments, gym memberships, and mental health support. But small steps can add up to a big difference. Here's what you can do to protect your workers against burnout:

Make sure your people disconnect

While remote work affords employees greater flexibility, it is harder to unplug when your home's your office. Encourage your employees to develop shutdown rituals that make the mental shift from 'work-time’ to ‘me-time.’ Healthy end-of-day habits include taking stock of the day's achievements or planning out the next day's work (to stop worrying about it). And getting everyone together for a 'team sundown' on a Friday (perhaps with a nice cold beverage) is great for team building – and gives the unmistakable signal that it's time to power down.

Set clear policies

Set clear guidelines around the maximum number of working hours – per week or shift – that people should be working. You might also consider banning work emails over the weekend, on public holidays, and during vacation. Such restrictions might be unworkable in multi-time zone settings though; a good alternative is to add a truly human notice to email signatures, stating that the recipient should respond only during hours convenient to them.

Model good behavior

Leaders are more overworked than ever, but it's important to role model healthy working practices. As a manager, be demonstrative about taking breaks and vacations and turning off your devices at certain times. Assess your team's working habits, keep an eye on their workloads, and let people know that it is OK not be OK. That said, many managers struggle to spot the early warning signs of possible mental health issue. Ask for training if you need it.

Focus on results, not time spent at the computer

If you were used to managing your team in person, gauging how busy they looked when you walked by their desk, we have news for you. 'Busy metrics' won't cut it with remote teams. According to recent Adecco Group research, knowledge workers overwhelmingly want their bosses to measure their performance based on results – not hours. Indeed, remote working pushes managers to find more objective productivity metrics. Only when the onus is on results delivered (rather than time at the computer) do employees experience true flexibility and feel able to balance their work and personal lives.

Learn more Adecco tips on managing remote teams and supporting working parents and younger workers in particular.