Busy seasons, workforce reductions, and other organizational events can all bring about changes (increases or decreases) to employees’ workload. Employees oftentimes foresee and anticipate future workload changes. For example, many employees expect a workload increase when a team member leaves the company. Researchers sought to answer the question: how do we react to our current workload when we anticipate workload increases or workload decreases?

Occupational health psychologists, who specialize in the study of employee safety and well-being, often study indicators of emotional strain. Emotional strain is an umbrella term that encompasses the negative feelings of being emotionally fatigued, depleted, or exhausted. Employees often report feeling emotionally strained during periods of very high workload. However, researchers have not incorporated employees’ expectations about future changes into the study of emotional strain. This study’s findings suggest that our understanding of emotional strain would benefit from considering both people’s perceptions of their current workload and their expected changes in workload levels.

Sixty-one employees at a market research firm completed monthly surveys for a period of 12 months. Employees worked on a project-by-project basis, where their workload was determined by project needs. At the end of each month, participants were invited to complete a survey in exchange for financial compensation. Survey items were framed on a monthly basis, so participants reported their feelings about the past month and expectations about the next month.

The monthly surveys asked participants to report their current workload and emotional strain on a 5-point Likert-type scale using scales provided by Caplan et al. (1980) and Krischer, Penney, & Hunter (2010). Additionally, participants reported their anticipated workload change each month on three dimensions: (a) amount of workload, (b) workload difficulty, and (c) time pressure. These responses were scored on Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (Decrease a lot) to 5 (Increase a lot). A score of 3 indicated that participants expected their workload to stay the same next month.

Key Findings

  • The relationship between current workload and emotional strain depended on how employees anticipated that their workload would change.
  • When workload was anticipated to stay the same or increase further, there was a strong, positive relationship between current workload and emotional strain.
  • The results told a different story for those who expected a relief from their current workload (i.e., a workload decrease) next month. People did not experience as much emotional strain if they anticipated a workload decrease, even if their current workload was high.

Implications for Practice
Results from this study are especially applicable in the public relations industry because workload fluctuates and can become heavy around deadlines. The results suggest that employees are less likely to experience emotional strain if their high workload is believed to be temporary. Thus, managers should monitor the workload of employees and consider how they can give relief to employees who are at risk of experiencing emotional strain. For example, managers can provide short breaks for short-term relief or redistribute tasks for longer-term relief. Moreover, this study highlights the importance of communicating these efforts. Managers should tell employees how and when they can expect a workload decrease. That way, they can look forward to those opportunities to recover.

Although the data were collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, the study has clear implications for employees working during the pandemic. Many employees have experienced dramatic increases in workload or large-scale changes to the way their tasks are done. The pandemic has no clear end date, so employees cannot look forward to prompt relief. This study suggests that employees in those situations are at an especially high risk of experiencing emotional strain.

DiStaso, M. J., & Shoss, M. K. (2020) Looking forward: How anticipated workload change influences the present workload-emotional strain relationship. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. Advanced online publication.

Location of Article
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Michael DiStaso is a doctoral candidate in the University of Central Florida’s Industrial and Organizational Psychology program. He directs the Psychology department’s Stressful Events and Experiences Research Group. He is interested in studying cognitive and behavioral reactions to experiencing and anticipating stressful events. His Twitter is @michael_distaso. 

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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