Is it possible to reduce stress for overloaded work?

In recent years, “996” working hours have gradually become the focus of public opinion. 996 means that employees work 12 hours a day (from work at 9 am to work at 9 pm), working 6 days a week. Although the “Labor Law” stipulates that workers work 8 hours a day and 5 days a week, many companies require their employees to work overtime without compensation, which is particularly prominent in high-tech companies. Alibaba founder Jack Ma and JD founder Liu Qiangdong both publicly expressed their support for the 996 work system and encouraged employees to cherish rare job opportunities. On the other hand, more and more professionals who claim to be “workers” are expressing their anxiety and resentment about the 996 work system on social media. Overworked makes them mentally exhausted, their health deteriorates, their spirits are depressed, and they can’t see their future and hope in life.

As the e-commerce giant Pinduoduo suffered sudden deaths and suicides of young employees due to work pressure in December 2020 and January 2021, this anxiety and resentment reached a climax. Pinduoduo Zhihu’s official account’s indifferent response to the sudden death of an employee—”Look at the people at the bottom, which one is not exchanging life for money… This is an era of hard work, you can choose a comfortable day, but you have to choose The consequences of ease”-even more aroused widespread indignation.

The overtime culture of high-tech companies tends to become a hot topic of public opinion. In fact, in other industries, overloading is commonplace. In 2018, the “On Workplace Behavior and Fatigue” survey report released by the Institute of Labor Economics of Wuhan University of Science and Technology showed that more than 80% of workers are in a state of overwork. The widespread overwork phenomenon has become one of the most prominent lesions in Chinese society.

In the United States today, although the situation of overloaded work is not as serious as the rapid development of China, it also appears in many work environments. Many “good jobs” in the traditional sense—high salaries, good benefits, safe and decent working environment—because of the pressure of overloading gradually become “bad jobs”, and company personnel in positions such as engineers, programmers, project managers, etc. Deeply troubled. American scholars Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen’s book “Overload: How Good Jobs Go Bad and What Can We Do” has analyzed the current situation through a five-year empirical study. The reason why “good jobs” in American society has become overloaded and “bad jobs” has come up with feasible solutions.

The two authors’ empirical research was conducted in the IT department of a large company that is one of the top 500 companies in the United States. They gave this company a code name “TOMO” in the book. TOMO is generally regarded as a good employer. Its IT department’s workforce consists of software developers, quality assurance personnel, project managers, and analysts. The average annual salary is more than US$90,000. There are also generous benefits. Cities in central America are pretty decent good jobs. However, TOMO’s management realized that employees in its IT department are generally under overloaded work pressure, which is why they are open to the research of the two scholars.

The two scholars first investigated more than 1,000 employees and managers of TOMO’s IT department to understand their work, health and personal life. Through the investigation, they identified four main causes of overloaded work:

The first is that the actual working hours are too long, exceeding or even far exceeding the legal or contractual time; the second is “always online, always working”. The new communication technology makes leaders and colleagues tend to contact employees at any time and any place, and Looking forward to a prompt reply. The third is to take care of multiple tasks at the same time, which makes it impossible to concentrate on the most important tasks. For example, programmers are constantly interrupted in the process of writing code because other people are asking them for information all day. The problem kept popping up through the chat window on the company’s intranet, resulting in a whole day of work-or even a whole week-unable to start to complete what was supposed to be done, so I had to work overtime late at night and on weekends to try to keep up with the progress. Fourth, I feel that I need to be seen by leaders and colleagues anyway, even if it is a work that can be completed without sitting in a shift, I have to go to the company to take a shift, thus wasting commuting time; even if there is no necessary meeting at all, I must attend, thus delaying important work .

In the case of TOMO, several factors have exacerbated the pressure of overloading:

One is that managers often set unrealistic deadlines. The second is staff simplification. The company has experienced several cycles of layoffs, but the workload remains the same. Those employees who survive the layoffs are forced to share the tasks left by the laid-off colleagues, thus weakening the ability of teamwork and mutual help. The third is offshore outsourcing. TOMO chose to outsource part of its IT work to India to maximize cost savings. However, remote employees in India need more training and more coordinated efforts than local employees. Increasing the workload of American employees, they must now coordinate across time zones.

Why is overloaded work not being challenged? The reason is that employees are generally afraid of losing their jobs. Globalization and new technological revolutions have brought a sense of crisis to all walks of life. Even the most experienced and skilled employees may be replaced by outsourcing and artificial intelligence. Not only that, American companies often merge, reorganize, lay off employees, and even go bankrupt and dissolve. Even skilled professionals and middle managers are not sure whether they can keep their jobs next year or even tomorrow. Because they have no sense of security at work, employees generally do not raise their overloaded work pressure to the management.

Overwork not only hurts employees, but also endangers the development of the company. Overload work is directly related to brain drain, because high-level and experienced employees are unwilling to work under the stress of physical and mental fatigue and are easy to leave. Overwork will also reduce quality and inhibit innovation.

After summarizing the overloaded work status and causes of TOMO’s IT department, the two authors launched another experiment of work change. They designed and implemented a work transformation plan called “STAR” for short. “STAR” is the acronym for “Support, Transform, Achieve, Results” (Support, Transform, Achieve, Results). The basic idea is to let employees control Own work time, location and process, reduce low-value tasks, such as not having to attend meetings unrelated to the main business, management also receive training to understand the importance of supporting employees’ personal and family life. According to the plan, they selected 56 working groups in this IT department, randomly assigned half of them to work under the guidance of the STAR program, and the other half continued to work under the company’s existing rules and policies.

At present, American companies mainly rely on two methods to relieve their employees from working overload. One is to develop health plans for their employees, and the other is to implement flexible work schedules. However, the company’s employee health plan does not relieve heavy work tasks; similarly, flexible working hours only allow employees to adjust their time according to the situation, rather than face the real problems of heavy work tasks. Unlike the above two methods, the key to the STAR plan is to redesign the task itself.

One example is to allow employees to log off the Internet and concentrate on their work. Before implementing the STAR plan, employees in TOMO’s IT department need to respond immediately to all questions raised by their colleagues. Therefore, they cannot handle their “real work” during office hours and must work overtime at night, which makes them deeply frustrated. The STAR plan requires that the company’s internal chat system be closed, and emails can be closed for an hour or more during working hours, so that employees can concentrate on important tasks, but at the same time ensure that they can be contacted in the event of an emergency. This is an important change.

Another example is that employees have become more cautious about meeting invitations. In the team implementing the STAR plan, employees will ask questions like: “What is this meeting about? What information do you need me to provide? Can I share materials with you in advance instead of having an hour-long meeting?” This means that people do not have to delay “real work” because of meetings.

In the team that implemented the STAR plan, employees moved more work from the office to online to complete. The role and decision-making power of employees have changed, and the work itself has been re-understood. It is no longer assumed that all tasks are imminent. It is no longer required that all information is immediately available. All these changes do not necessarily lead to a reduction in working hours, but employees have greater autonomy in time management and task management, which helps to reduce work overload in general.

More importantly, the STAR program changed the workplace culture. For the management, this change is manifested in the following aspects: pay less attention to the time, place and method of work, pay more attention to the results; identify and reduce low-value jobs; clarify the expectations of each employee in terms of work products; let employees Decide your working hours and locations; for important tasks, you need to arrange concentrated working hours for employees (usually offline); recognize and support employees’ lives outside of work; etc.

There are also many changes in employees, such as: no longer regard long hours of work, use of holiday work, interruption of sleep for work, etc. as things worthy of boasting; no longer comment on other people’s working hours, and no longer comment on how long they have not seen it in the office They have changed their work procedures to adapt to personal and family life, and share them within the team; feel exhausted because of overloaded work pressure, and even consider leaving the job, candidly communicate with colleagues; and so on.

The results of the analysis in this book show that compared with those in the control group that did not implement the STAR plan, in the STAR-implemented team, the level of employee burnout was significantly reduced, job satisfaction was significantly improved, the intention to leave was significantly reduced, and family pressure was also reduced. , Can exercise more actively and pursue personal goals. Although employees face the same high demands as before and work as hard as before, they feel that their pressure has been significantly reduced.

However, although the experiment proved that the STAR program can successfully relieve the pressure of overloaded work, the program did not continue. The reason is that TOMO merged with another company and the new management team took control of the merged organization. They abandoned the STAR program, restored the old way of working, and never explained the reason for the withdrawal of the STAR program to ordinary employees. Such an outcome certainly deeply regrets the two authors of this book, and it also reveals the underlying reason why the pressure of overloading work is difficult to alleviate-the American corporate culture makes the management need not pay attention to the responsibility to employees.

In the book “The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America” ​​published in 2017, Rick Wartzman, a scholar at the Drucker Institute in the United States, attributed the decline of “good jobs” in the United States to American corporate culture Since the 1980s, it has become the advocacy of “shareholder value supremacy.” The basis for measuring the success of a company is how much value it creates for shareholders. This makes CEOs mainly consider short-term interests rather than long-term interests and sustainable development of the company. There is no need to win the loyalty and professionalism of employees by maintaining the social contract between employers and employees.

The American sociologist Jerry Davis pointed out in the book “Market Management: How Finance Reshapes America” ​​published in 2009 that American companies were once the core of the social structure, social values ​​and political and economic power. However, under the impact of the wave of “shareholder value supremacy”, it has become a collection of a set of contracts, which is the legal shell of a variety of economic transactions, and its entities can be divided and sold in the securities market. Responsibilities of other people have declined.

In this general environment, even if a company is concerned about the interests of its employees, it may change its course due to mergers by other companies. TOMO company is an example. Originally, its management wanted to reduce the overload pressure of employees, so it was happy to see the success of the STAR plan; but after TOMO merged with another company, the new management was unwilling to give up work on employees Control of time and working methods, and reluctance to delegate decision-making power to employees. This embodies the “arrogance of power” of the management. The fundamental reason lies in the asymmetry of the voice of management and ordinary employees, or in other words, the asymmetry of the voice of capital and labor.

In today’s China, the asymmetry of the right to speak between capital and labor is particularly serious. High-tech companies are enjoying huge engineer dividends. With millions of science and engineering graduates seeking jobs every year, they don’t have to worry about not recruiting new employees, and ordinary employees on the job face pressure to keep their jobs. This makes high-tech companies accustomed to let employees form different project teams within the company to compete with each other, compare performance, and eliminate the last. As a result, everyone is at risk, and overloading has become a voluntary behavior.

In service industries such as takeaway riders, capital’s right to speak is even more crushing on laborers. On December 21, 2020, the 43-year-old “Hungry?” takeaway rider Han died suddenly due to overwork when delivering the 34th order. However, the takeaway rider and the “Hungry?” platform are not legally labor-employment relations, so ” Are you hungry” only paid 2,000 yuan in humanitarian compensation. “Are you hungry?” There is no need to worry about the lack of takeaway riders, even if the treatment it provides is so bad.

Obviously, if the strong position of capital relative to labor cannot be effectively contained, alleviating the widespread phenomenon of overloaded work is empty talk. On the other hand, the practice of the STAR program shows that it is completely achievable to reduce the pressure of overloaded work while maintaining the same efficiency and quality requirements, provided that the company’s management has the willingness to solve the problem.