science of us

Trying Too Hard at Work Is Bad for You

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Most people — most people living under late capitalism, at least — are under the assumption that working harder is equivalent to working better, not only in terms of one’s career advancement, but in broader life satisfaction: Harder work leads to more (and quicker) promotions, which lead to more money, which leads to greater satisfaction. But a new study says the truth might be closer to the opposite: Working consistently too hard is not only bad for your well-being, but for your career, too.

Using data collected from more than 50,000 subjects from 36 European countries (and all available industries), researchers analyzed the effects of overtime work and “work intensity,” or the relative amount of effort put into one’s job tasks, on measures of well-being (stress, fatigue, and job satisfaction) as well as career-related outcomes like job security, recognition, and career prospects, controlling for those factors that might mediate the results, like whether a job can be considered white-collar or blue-collar, and how much freedom an employee has to make their own schedule.

Researchers found that increased work intensity was associated with reduced well-being and inferior work outcomes, meaning your boss won’t even be particularly impressed — and that was true even in higher-level occupations, where trying hard might be expected to be even more readily rewarded. Their results suggest that the negative effects of working too hard (like stress, fatigue, and burnout) outweigh whatever might be gained by signaling one’s dedication to the company through that extra effort.

Obviously, employers value employees who are good at their jobs, and show up to their jobs, and many encourage employees to work too much and too hard. It’s one thing to know you shouldn’t work so hard, and another to convince your boss that what’s good for you is good for them. If nothing else, take this study as an encouragement to let yourself coast at work, just a little, now and then. I’m happy to write you a note.

Trying Too Hard at Work Is Bad for You