When Good Jobs Go Bad

Erin L. Kelly


For a number of years, Erin L. Kelly, the Sloan Distinguished Professor of  Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has studied work-family policies in organizations and the ways employees balance work and family responsibilities. But in their new book “Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It,” forthcoming from Princeton University Press in early 2020, Kelly and her coauthor Phyllis Moen, the McKnight Endowed Presidential Chair in Sociology at the University of Minnesota, conclude that jobs today can be so demanding that even single people without caregiving responsibilities can have trouble keeping up with workplace expectations.

Martha Mangelsdorf, Director of Strategic Communications for the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan, sat down with Kelly to talk about the overload problem—and possible solutions. What follows is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.

Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative: Talk a little bit about your forthcoming book “Overload” with Phyllis Moen. What does the concept of “overload” mean in your book?

Kelly: The concept of overload refers to the sense that there's just too much to do—that you're being asked to tackle too much at work, and you feel rushed and overwhelmed. That often happens because you no longer have as many coworkers working on a given project as you might have had 10 or 15 years ago. It also happens because our technologies allow managers, clients, and peers to think that they can reach you at any hour of the day or night—and so often they try to do so.

In our research, we studied professional and managerial workers in a well-established, well-respected U.S. firm. We think that overload happens in many work settings. But in this case we studied “good jobs,” where there's high pay, good benefits, a respectful work environment, and no exposure to hazardous chemicals or dangerous environments. Yet the work demands have become too much.

How much of overload do you think is driven by technology?

Kelly: We don't think technology itself is the issue. Instead, technology is the tool that allows managers to ask more of people and allows people to try to live up to those requests. The problem of overload is driven by a set of company strategies and management decisions about running lean and, in the case of the company that we studied, trying to stretch work all over the world in a global labor chain. Technology makes it possible to do that, but it's management decisions and staffing strategies that we believe are driving this sense of overload.

How did you study this phenomenon?

Kelly: We went into a U.S. Fortune 500 firm as part a large research team called the Work, Family & Health Network. The executives who brought us in were motivated by concerns about turnover and high levels of employee burnout; they recognized that they were asking too much of employees in their globally distributed firm. Plus, they were having difficulty attracting new employees to a tired and toxic culture.

We started our project by surveying over a thousand employees and managers in the company’s IT division about their work, health, and personal lives. Then we ran a field experiment. We took 56 work groups within this IT division and randomly assigned half of them to go through a change initiative we call STAR and half of them to continue working under the existing company policies, as a control group.  The approach we took in STAR is called "dual agenda work redesign"—meaning that we were trying to change the organization in ways that benefit both employees and the firm.

One part of the STAR initiative involved asking managers to increase how often they communicated personal and professional support to employees. The second part was a set of workshops that teams attended together to look at questions like: How do we do our work? Do we work at home or not? What makes sense for us? What would happen if we assumed that each person could craft his or her own week, while still coordinating and compromising with one another to be sure the team’s work gets done? We encouraged teams to put all the options on the table and think creatively about how they worked together.  

What came out of that?

Kelly: It was really exciting. As we followed the teams in STAR over more than two years, we saw new ways of working together and probably most importantly, we saw reductions in participants’ levels of burnout, psychological distress, and stress, as well as an increase in job satisfaction.  We saw improvements in all of those different outcomes during our study, and, importantly, compared to the control group before and after.  These jobs were still challenging and the work was still somewhat intense, but people felt they could manage better.

One complication was that our study design called for different work groups in the firm to start the STAR initiative at different times. And in the middle of this study, the firm went through a merger, and suddenly there was a lot of additional organizational change everyone was grappling with—and an increase in worries about job security.  The effects that I just talked about with regard to burnout, job satisfaction, stress, and psychological distress were much stronger and clearer for those people who went through the STAR program before the merger was announced.   

Those starting the STAR program after the merger was announced probably had less confidence that these changes were safe to make and could be maintained.

Kelly: Right. Employees who were beginning the STAR initiative and learned about the merger often had questions like: Is STAR going to last? Is it a smart idea for me to jump on this bandwagon to do things in a new way at a time when the company's reorganizing?

So you got an unexpected dose of additional change in the company you were studying.

Kelly: Yes, and the most important impact for us was a new group of executives came in from the acquiring company who had no idea what STAR was and saw it as unwise and not consistent with their company culture. We were able to finish our study, but at the end of our research period, the new executive team of the consolidated firm ended the program and reverted to the acquiring company’s existing policy, which was quite restrictive.

I imagine that was frustrating.

Kelly: It was. We had deliberately set up this whole project as a quite rigorous test, so we could do the science right. And over and over and over for a wide variety of outcomes, we were seeing positive changes. To realize that that wasn't enough to secure this new way of working for this workforce was disappointing.

Let’s talk about the changes that teams made in STAR. You've talked about the general idea that the program gave people freedom to figure out different ways to work. What did that mean for employees?

Kelly: Probably the most common change was an increase in working at home, often two or three days a week.  But it really did vary. Another change was people putting the pieces of their day together as they saw fit—for example, they were more likely to take a couple hours off in the middle of the day to take care of something outside work and then work at home later in the evening.

We also saw fascinating changes in how work happens. One change we saw in many teams was policies about getting “offline” to do concentrated work—turning off the chat system the company used and maybe closing your email for an hour or more during the work day. This was something that felt like a major change, because before STAR these IT professionals were expected to be immediately responsive to all questions that came in from colleagues. But they'd been frustrated because their workdays had stretched long into the night when it was quieter and they could have more time to do “real work.” So one change that we saw in many groups after STAR was a decision to allow people to go offline to do concentrated work, but to also make it clear how they could be reached if there was an urgent need to do so during such times.

Another example of working smarter was teams becoming more deliberate about how they responded to meeting invitations. In the organization’s culture previously, the assumption was you said yes to every meeting. One outcome for teams going through STAR was being willing to ask questions like: What's happening in this meeting and exactly what information do you need from me? Can I share materials with you in advance instead of going to the hour-long meeting? That meant people were no longer booked day to night in meetings and did not feel that they were crowding their “real work” in around the edges.

What was the effect of these changes on the company?

Kelly: Burnout decreased, job satisfaction increased, and various aspects of employee well-being improved, but hours worked didn’t change. Because more people were working at home more often, people gained some time back from commutes, and that was certainly appreciated. That may be why people reported less stress and less work-family strain and were able to exercise and pursue personal goals more actively, but hours didn't go up or down.

The other critical change from the perspective of the firm was reduced turnover and reduced turnover intentions. When surveyed after STAR, employees were less likely to say that they were seriously considering leaving their job in the next 12 months.  Then we tracked them over almost three years and they were in fact significantly less—about 40% less—likely to choose to leave the firm than their colleagues in the control group.

What do you see as some of the takeaways from this research for executives?

Kelly: For executives, I think our book provides compelling evidence that you can design work so that it does well by people and does well by the organization, and that isn’t just a matter of setting up flexible work arrangements on an individual basis.

Our message to executives is: Go for it. Making these kinds of changes is worthwhile and can pay off—and would be much appreciated by your employees. The materials that we used in the STAR Initiative are freely available. We're very happy to share them and to hear from anyone who uses the approach within their organization.

What research questions are you exploring next?

Kelly: There are many other opportunities to look at the way we organize work and consider changes that might benefit both employees and the organization. We found exciting benefits among professionals and managers, as we’ve summarized in our book. But hourly workers in the service sector, in production, and in health care are also facing challenges related to their schedules and their ability to take care of their personal lives and their own health. I am excited to be working with my MIT Sloan colleagues Alex Kowalski and Hazhir Rahmandad on a new project that looks at smart scheduling strategies for hourly workers doing warehouse work.