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Putting in overtime often comes at a cost of stress, burnout and depression. But reality doesn't translate into a clear-cut “extra work = decreased well-being” equation. In certain cases, it could be the opposite! The crucial difference lies in the motivation behind the long hours, whether they stem from an inner desire or external pressures, as Profs. Argyro Avgoustaki and Almudena Cañibano show in their study picked up my several media, including The Register and L’Express (in French).

Stretched working hours, a major health issue
According to a recent World Heath Organization study, working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week. The Japanese have even coined a term for death from overwork: karoshi. Outside of such extreme examples, there is abundant evidence that individuals who put in long hours pay a heavy toll in terms of stress, fatigue, burn out, exhaustion, or illness.
Extensive work effort is a major concern because it is so widespread: according to the Sixth European Working Conditions Surveys, 30% of European workers regularly work more than 40 hours per week. In the UK alone, 5.3 million workers do unpaid overtime and dedicate, on average, almost 8 hours above their contracted hours to work every week, according to the Trade Unions Congress.

It seems that bankers' hours (the term seems to still reflect reality, according to innovative research co-authored by a colleague at ESCP) are becoming the norm for many types of workers. The question professors Argyro Avgoustaki and Almudena Cañibano asked themselves is, how does this impact their well-being? The answer is not straightforward. Some argue overtime work does not lead to negative employee outcomes as long as employees have control over how much they work. However, this argument is discussable when observing executives whose bodies suffer and rebel even though they are voluntary workaholics. The researchers improved the understanding of the relationship between extensive work effort and well-being by showing that outcomes in terms of well-being depend on the reasons why professionals work long hours, rather than on control.

Pressure vs. passion: distinguishing extrinsic and intrinsic motivations
To shed light on the reasons driving employees to work extensively, they used self-determination as a theoretical lens. This theory specifically distinguishes between extrinsic motivation – doing something to achieve an external objective –, and intrinsic motivation – doing something because it is inherently engaging and pleasant. Examples of the former would be financial rewards, praise or pressure; examples of the latter would be the search for self-acceptance, or the desire to perform a better job. They empirically tested their hypothesis by surveying 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.

Extrinsically-driven work effort and well-being: peer pressure, guilt
Their first result was that extrinsically-driven work effort negatively affected well-being. “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”, they explain. It is not the lack of choice that seems to matter but the reasons why they voluntarily chose to work overtime. Which other types of motivational drivers of extensive work effort fall into this category? Employees may decide to put in face time (also known as presenteeism) in the hope to boost their careers. They may put in long hours out of pure mimetism, because everyone else in the office does so, or because performance is measured as a function of billable hours, or simply under threat of redundancy if they don't meet the requirements of an excessive workload.

Intrinsically-driven work effort and well-being: desire to learn, commitment...
Conversely, behaviours driven by intrinsic motivators are gratifying and therefore associated with more positive emotions, attitudes, and well-being. Profs. Argyro Avgoustaki and Almudena Cañibano’s 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,” they add. “Individuals, particularly knowledge workers for whom work is a part of their identity, may also throw themselves into it out of commitment toward colleagues or the organization.”

Inner motivation and external rewards reinforce each other
But what happens when both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations are part of the picture? If for example, professionals are driven to work longer hours by social contagion, will they feel so constrained to act in this way that it will reduce the extent to which they do this because of their sense of commitment? Will peer pressure “crowd out” the desire to become better at their job? Quite the contrary. Despite the prevalence of the “crowding out” theory in academic literature, they 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.

“Our insights will be useful for policymakers and HR managers when exploring ways to improve well-being at work,” they conclude. “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.”