Wellbeing ‘not necessarily’ harmed by long hours, study claims

wellbeing and long hoursPutting in overtime often comes at a cost of stress, burnout and depression. But extra work doesn’t always negatively affect wellbeing. In fact, according to recent research from academics ESCP Business School, it could be the opposite. According to the study, the crucial difference lies in the motivation behind the long hours, whether they stem from an inner desire or external pressures.

To shed light on the reasons driving employees to work long hours, the researchers Argyro Avgoustaki and Almudena Cañibano surveyed more than 500 professionals in the Spanish division of a major international consultancy firm, an interesting setting for two reasons: consultants tend to enjoy bargaining power and autonomy, and long hours are pretty much the norm in the industry.

The first result found that extrinsically-driven work effort negatively affected wellbeing. In other words, when individuals put in long hours because of external factors, such as in order to obtain rewards, they are more likely to experience well-being issues, such as stress and depression. It is not the lack of choice that seems to matter but the reasons why they chose to work overtime.

Conversely, behaviours driven by intrinsic motivators are gratifying and therefore associated with more positive emotions, attitudes, and wellbeing. The study confirmed less negative outcomes in terms of well-being associated with internal motives for overtime. Well-being may thus be preserved when long hours are a conscious decision based on an inclination to learn for its own sake, a desire to develop relevant knowledge and skills, or to enjoy a feeling of achievement.

Surprisingly the researchers also found that extrinsic and intrinsic motives in fact reinforce each other. In other words, working overtime to send signals about a desire for promotion, for example, is compatible with striving for growth. In addition, they found that the association between intrinsically-driven work effort and well-being was more positive at higher levels of overtime, whereas extrinsically-driven work effort reduces well-being no matter the amount of overtime.

Almudena Cañibano, Associate Professor in Human Resource Management says: “Our insights will be useful for policymakers and HR managers when exploring ways to improve well-being at work. They should focus on encouraging the design of meaningful jobs in which workers would be willing to engage out of interest for the task itself and the learning it can produce, rather than just on providing new extrinsic incentives.”