Pressure to Work Is Often Self-Imposed, SHRM Poll Finds

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR May 5, 2009
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The ruthless magazine editor Miranda Priestly, portrayed by Meryl Streep in the movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” might have expected her two assistants to be constantly at her beck and call, but a new Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) poll finds that the pressure to work long hours and on vacation is generally self-imposed rather than forced by a supervisor.

SHRM’s “Pressure to Work: Employee Perspective” research included responses from 605 full-time and part-time employed U.S. residents. The survey was fielded for a two-week period ending Jan. 12, 2009.

More than one-third of employees responding to the poll (35 percent) said they worked beyond their scheduled hours frequently on weekdays or weekends. Another 35 percent said they did so occasionally. But when asked to name the reasons they felt pressured to do so, just 21 percent blamed their immediate supervisor or manager.

Although 44 percent cited project or performance goals, a majority of employees (52 percent) said the impetus to work longer hours was self-imposed.

The desire for career advancement spurred some respondents (12 percent) to work late, as did competition with co-workers, named by 5 percent. Other sources of work hour pressure identified in the survey include pressure from organizational higher-ups, demands from investors or organizational supporters, and external reasons such as global and industry competition.

During the workday, employees most often sacrifice their lunch period to keep up with work duties. Four out of 10 employees said they had worked through lunch frequently over the past 12 months; another 32 percent said they did so occasionally. Such behavior could run afoul of state laws mandating meal breaks.

The lure of e-mail is hard to resist, according to employees. Thirty-six percent said they had checked e-mails frequently after hours and on weekends over the past 12 months. One-quarter of respondents said they frequently checked e-mail while on vacation; slightly more said they did so while taking sick leave.

According to the report, these practices were more common among executive-level and middle management respondents than among non-management employees.

The Economic Effect

The economic recession might be causing some employees to boost their visibility at work. One in 10 employees said they feel “a great deal of pressure” to work longer hours compared to 12 months ago. A similar number (11 percent) feel they cannot take vacation or other time off, and even more (13 percent) feel a great deal of pressure to work beyond their scheduled hours. Another 26 percent said they feel “some pressure” to work extra hours.

However, such concerns are not widespread. SHRM reports that half of respondents said they felt no pressure to avoid vacation over the past year, and nearly half (49 percent) said they felt no pressure to work longer hours compared to 12 months ago.

Here, too, executive- and management-level employees are more likely to report that they feel pressured to work longer hours and to avoid taking vacation than lower-level employees, according to SHRM.

But, as SHRM has reported, the economy might spur some employees not only to work longer hours and check e-mails on vacation but also to engage in social activities such as after-work happy hours.

However, the pressure employees feel to be present physically during regular business hours might be lessening, as flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting garner greater employer acceptance.

Just 9 percent of employees said they were concerned that telecommuting, using flextime or working a compressed schedule would cause them to be perceived as less committed to their job. By contrast, the majority of employees (58 percent) said they were “not at all concerned” that taking advantage of flexible work arrangements would create a perception that they were less committed.

Similarly, 66 percent and 63 percent of respondents, respectively, said they were not at all concerned that flexible work would jeopardize career advancement opportunities or job security.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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