Research Highlight Why some employees cope better with intensive work

Peer pressure, tight deadlines or physically demanding tasks may turn any job into particularly intense work, with potentially adverse effects on employee well-being. Which ones enjoy their intense work days and which ones want to head for the door? The answer depends (partly) on individual motivation, as fresh research by Argyro Avgoustaki and her co-author explains. 

Whether it entails chopping wood, stacking shelves in a corner shop or drafting documents for a complex legal case, any job may potentially be described as intense. Rather than the actual work duration, work intensity refers to the rate of physical and/or mental input required, the extent to which tasks are performed simultaneously or in sequence, and the “porosity” of the working day, meaning the gaps between tasks during which the body and mind rest and recover.

Why explore resistance and vulnerability to work intensity?

The problem is that work intensity, in addition to depressing work quality and productivity, is one of the strongest predictors of reduced job satisfaction (and its extreme expression, intention to quit) and is correlated with a host of ills. Specifically, employees performing intensive work experience inferior well-being, with higher levels of stress and anxiety, and physical symptoms such as backaches, insomnia and increased risk of suicide.

And the problem isn't going away, as a duo of researchers recently pointed out in an article on the subject. “Given the evidence of sustained work intensification, this issue should be high on the agenda of workers, employers and policymakers, write professors Argyro Avgoustaki and Hans Frankort.

If tight deadlines or pressure to work overtime are unlikely to disappear, is there any way to cushion the detrimental effect of work intensity on job satisfaction, and on workers' mental and physical health?

Work intensity might have well-being ramifications as severe as those of second-hand smoke exposure or unemployment.

Available research based on empirical evidence argues that employees performing intensive work differ in their ability to cope, in particular when jobs afford some latitude on how and when to perform tasks. “Yet, while job discretion—a characteristic of the work environment—may buffer some of the adverse effects of work intensity, it only partially accounts for the observed variance in employee well-being attributable to intensive work,” they add.  

To better understand these differences, they suggest broadening attention from job characteristics to individual motivations for engaging in intensive work. To do so, they introduce self-determination theory to the domain of work intensity.

Three types of motives for working intensively

Basically, self-determination theory distinguishes between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation involves performing an activity to achieve a separable outcome, such as a verbal reward or a tangible one (salary) or to avoid punishment or criticism. Intrinsic motivation is more autonomous; it involves performing an activity because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable. 

How does this approach apply to a work context? 

  • Regarding extrinsic motivation, employees may work intensively to cope with unavoidable job demands and excessive workload: “Due to downsizing or budget constraints, understaffed companies may push employees to work intensively to compensate for labour shortages,” write the researchers. 
  • However, work intensity driven by explicit or implicit incentives – for example, the desire to earn a bonus – while still extrinsic, reflects greater autonomy. 
  • Finally, employees may be intrinsically motivated to work hard simply because they are interested in the job, or enjoy the challenge. 

According to self-determination theory, these motivation types translate into varying levels of work-related well-being. “Specifically, the greater the degree of perceived relative autonomy, the more positively a motivation type should be associated with employee well-being,” detail the authors. Indeed, these general patterns have been observed across occupations, from gas-station employees to members of a finance-sector trade union: intrinsic motivation is associated with positive well-being, extrinsic motivation with negative well-being.

Findings and applications

Going further, professors Avgoustaki and Frankort hypothesized that intensive work driven by explicit or implicit incentives is more positively associated with employee job satisfaction, and more negatively with quit intentions, than intensive work driven by job demands. Conversely, they expected intensive work driven by intrinsic motives to be more positively associated with employee job satisfaction, and more negatively with quit intentions, than intensive work driven by explicit or implicit incentives. 

To test their theory, they surveyed more than 600 employees across 15 branches of a major grocery chain in Greece, a setting in which work intensity is high. After adjusting their results to account for the effect of job discretion, the researchers found empirical support for their hypotheses.

Employers could design jobs and tasks so they are inherently enjoyable and interesting.

So after all, there is some truth in the (apocryphal) saying “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” While it's hard to guarantee never having to work, loving one's occupation means not suffering from it and thus not longing to quit. 

This is why the researchers offer advice along the same lines for workers and employers: “When considering a high-intensity job, workers could benefit from developing some notion of their anticipated motives for intensive work. From the standpoint of subjective well-being, jobs in which an employee believes they would be intrinsically motivated to work hard seem preferable to jobs in which the employee feels they could only be motivated to do so by incentives or job demands.” 

They also recommend that employers be mindful of the issue of work intensity per se, as well as of the motivational aspects of work: “Employers could design jobs and tasks so they are inherently enjoyable and interesting, which can stimulate intrinsic motivation. During the selection process, employers can focus on identifying candidates who are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to work hard, perhaps because the job matches their interests particularly well.”


Argyro Avgoustaki - ESCP Business School Argyro Avgoustaki Professor of Management, ESCP Business School (London campus)
Hans Frankort Hans Frankort Professor of Strategy at Bayes Business School (City, University of London)