"Going the extra mile" at work - helping colleagues, going beyond the confines of a narrow job description, taking on extra responsibilities - can help people feel more engaged with their work, improve job satisfaction and increase promotion prospects. But as Bruce Rayton explains, this doesn't come without a cost.
Mental health is becoming a hot topic. Boosted by a high profile awareness campaign fronted by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, recent months have seen public figures from the worlds of music and sport as well as Prince Harry himself speak out about the challenges they’ve faced.
Businesses too have joined the conversation, and it makes sense for them to do so. After all, paid work is the primary activity for many people during their waking hours, and the costs associated with employees’ mental health problems are significant.
The UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence estimated the cost of impaired work efficiency associated with mental health problems at £15.1 billion a year. This figure is almost twice the estimated annual cost of absenteeism (£8.4 billion). These costs are associated with loss in productivity because of sickness absence, early retirement, low engagement, and increased staff turnover, recruitment and training.
The mental health risks of being a good citizen at work
Our recent research helps us understand an important piece of this problem. Our findings show that employees who work beyond the narrow boundaries of their job roles are at increased risk of mental health problems. We found that going the extra mile at work can lead to higher levels of emotional exhaustion and work-family conflict. We also found that these effects were most pronounced for employees who already performed well in the core elements of their jobs.
We defined ‘going the extra mile’ using well-known academic measures of organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB), with a particular focus on the dimensions of ‘altruism’ (helping colleagues) and ‘conscientiousness’ (going beyond the minimum). We were especially interested in the effects of conscientiousness and altruism because these time-consuming activities have the potential to exhaust employees emotionally and leave less time for family life.
OCB is widely regarded as being beneficial for both employers and employees. We know from earlier work that OCB improves group and organisational performance and influences managers’ decisions on an individual’s performance ratings, promotion and pay. The worker puts in extra time, or takes on extra responsibility, and as a result feels more engaged with their work and positive about their career prospects. The employer gets committed staff, with improved productivity or results. However, our work suggests that there is also a cost to be paid for these benefits. Somewhat surprisingly, these costs are disproportionately paid by those who are doing “the day job” well.
What can employers do?
Managers are prone to delegate more tasks and responsibilities to conscientious employees who are likely to try to maintain consistently high levels of output. We can see the sense in using today’s strengths to solve today’s problems. However, we think that companies should think twice before asking the same ‘good soldiers’ to take on yet more additional tasks and consider how the burden might be shared. Even the highest performers will eventually run out of emotional energy and the consequences for their mental health will have further consequences for their employers.
We believe that much greater consideration needs to be given to the kinds of behaviours that HR practices are encouraging and how organisations might cope with the consequences. Reviews of practices in three key areas are necessary:
· A narrow focus of reward and performance management systems on short term goals might encourage the kind of ‘sprinting’ which increases the longer term costs of OCB.
· Education and training practices for both line managers and employees could aid recognition of situations where employees risk becoming emotionally exhausted.
· Health and safety practices, especially those associated with mental health and emotional well-being, can help those who suffer from the problems we identified.
An opportunity to “go the extra mile” is something that many employees want employers to provide. The resulting benefits including learning opportunities, skill development and knowledge transfer, can all have a substantial impact on the bottom line for firms and on the career development of individual employees. That said, managers need to keep an eye on the bigger picture if the performance gains associated with providing these opportunities are to be sustained. The human capital developed through OCB can only create value for organisations if the employees are healthy enough to use it to good effect.
Employers should pay attention to more than the quarterly bottom line. They should make themselves aware of both the current state of and potential threats to the mental health of their employees, particularly their high performers. If nothing else, this awareness holds the prospect of helping firms avoid turning today’s solutions into the sources of tomorrow’s problems.