The way we work: Old rules and new realities

The way we work: Old rules and new realities

By Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen

The way we work is not sustainable. Sherwin knows this well. He has twenty years of experience as a skilled information technology (IT) professional and is one of the many professionals and managers we interviewed in a Fortune 500 company we call TOMO. Sherwin has a hybrid role where he designs new software solutions to address business problems but also participates directly in developing that new software; he’s both a big picture thinker and attuned to the details of writing solid computer code. On the personal side, Sherwin is a divorced dad with two daughters who live mainly with him. He is also the point person for his elderly mother, who is deciding whether it is time to move into a nursing home.

Sherwin’s family caregiving feels manageable; it is his workload on the job that is overwhelming. Sherwin estimates he works about 70 hours per week. He starts work with calls at 5 a.m., pauses to get his kids ready and off to school, works a full day, prepares dinner and supervises their homework, and then routinely works, at home, until midnight. The long hours and intense pace are perhaps not surprising given the managers he reports to. Sherwin’s manager, Tanay, describes himself as a “super workaholic” and says his own boss (who sits two levels above Sherwin on the organizational chart) pushes teams so hard that he is “trying to get blood from a rock.”

Sherwin is dedicated to his job and often excited about it. He enjoys the technical challenges of his work and appreciates the “tremendously talented people in this group . . . Wow, these guys are smart!” The feeling is mutual: Tanay conveys his respect for Sherwin’s intelligence and skills when we interview him separately. But despite appreciating much about his job, Sherwin knows the way he works is toxic. He recognizes that “never being able to get [all] the work done—[takes] a tremendous toll on me health-wise.” His work patterns make it harder for him to take good care of himself. “You’re staying up late, you’re eating,” and “the last thing in my mind was to get up and work out. Too tired.” In fact, Sherwin recently had a heart attack, luckily a fairly minor one. He tells us:

I didn’t even realize it, just went into the doctor because I was not feeling well and they ran an EKG and they did some tests and said “You had a heart attack yesterday.”

Sherwin was out of work for about four weeks to recover from this health crisis, but it has had a lasting impact. As he says, “I’m looking at things a lot differently in my life,” and he hopes to work differently to take better care of himself.

The way Sherwin works and lives exemplifies the overload—the feeling of having too much to do in too little time—that so many professionals and managers confront today. These employees are privileged in terms of their pay, benefits, and the ability to work in clean and comfortable offices. They are generally treated with respect, with their contributions and ideas recognized.1 These would seem to be “good jobs” in many ways. University of North Carolina sociologist Arne Kalleberg suggests we assess job quality by considering earnings, benefits, job security, and opportunities for advancement as well as how much autonomy or control employees have, how meaningful and interesting the tasks are, and how hours and schedules fit with the rest of life.

But these professionals and managers find that what had been good jobs have morphed into something more intense and less secure. New communication technologies foster an always-on, always-working culture. Managers and coworkers know they can contact employees anytime, anywhere, and they often do reach out before and after official workdays. Moreover, globalization, automation, and artificial intelligence make it clear to even the most educated, experienced, and skilled workers in a variety of occupations and industries that their jobs are changing radically, and may even disappear. Earnings and benefits are still relatively generous, but there is an increasing price to pay. Good jobs, previously characterized by relative autonomy and security, have become bad, with rising workloads, a sped-up pace, and escalating expectations that seem impossible to meet.

Is this the future of work, shaped by warp-speed connectivity, ratcheting demands, and eroding security? These ways of working will either break organizations or break people. Outdated policies and expectations collide with the intense realities of the digital revolution and the global production of “knowledge work” (as well as manufacturing goods) to exacerbate burnout, stress, and poor health. Most businesses continue to demand 9 to 5 (or 8 to 6) desk time in addition to early morning calls to offshore colleagues, last-minute but all-too-common work requests at 10 p.m., and ubiquitous emails, texts, and instant messaging.

Alongside changes tied to new technologies and global competition, US companies are routinely merging, reorganizing, downsizing, even disappearing. This leaves all employees—even skilled professionals and middle managers—unsure whether they will have their jobs next year or even next week. Those who survive layoffs experience even more overload as they attempt to cover the work of their downsized coworkers. The firm resolves to “do more with less,” and employees try frantically to make that happen.

Our interviews and surveys in TOMO’s IT division demonstrate that overload harms workers. That is probably not a surprise to readers, and it is very clear to the professionals and managers we interviewed. Kunwar, a manager who supervises almost thirty employees and is also a wife and mother, explains that her 10 p.m. meetings mean her “entire evening is actually ruined” because she is “on edge” and busy preparing for the call. Similarly, taking a “status call” meeting at 5:30 or 6:30 in the morning on Saturday or Sunday, as she does regularly, affects the whole weekend day.

You’re not able to relax a lot, so it’s definitely taking its toll on people’s health and stress levels and maybe blood pressure without us knowing it. Sleep—not being able sleep—or not taking the time even to go and exercise. I’m definitely constantly thinking about work.

But we also see that overload creates problems for the organization that employs these professionals and managers. Working at breakneck speed means the work product is not as high quality as it could be. The problem is not a lack of talent but a lack of time. Firms that rely on knowledge workers seek to recruit and retain creative people who can innovate. But creativity and innovativeness are simply incompatible with burnout and exhaustion.

A manager explains that the software developers who report to him are frustrated because “different people are pinging them for information” all day. They are interrupted from writing their code because questions come at them via the chat software the company uses. These IT professionals feel “they go through the whole day, the whole week without doing what they were expected to do” during regular work hours, so they work late nights and weekends (like Sherwin) to try to catch up. The manager sees how this fast pace affects teamwork too, reporting “simmering tensions” because the team members are working under too much pressure to address any concerns.

The pedal is pushed continuously . . . It’s like full throttle. Keep moving [laughs]. You get hurt? Tough. Let’s just get it [done] . . . I’m not saying I’m ignoring you, but sorry—we gotta get it done.

We ask if this pressure is due to a big deadline we know the team is facing in a few weeks (in September) and he explains that the intensity is routine:

We had it like that for June. We have it like that for September. I see that already December is coming [along] that way.

Overload and the clash of old rules with new realities are not private troubles that employees and frontline managers can fix for themselves by getting up earlier, deciding on their own to not read email in the evening, or scaling back on family obligations. Solving these problems requires inventing new ways of working to promote sane and sustainable jobs, fostering effectiveness on the job, and insisting on a higher quality of life for workers of all genders, ages, educational levels, occupations, and life stages.2

We believe federal safety nets and labor regulations should be updated to address the new intensity and precarity of work, as well as the growing inequality in the United States and elsewhere. But corporations and other employers can also do something about overload. Drawing on our research with an interdisciplinary group of scholars called the Work, Family, and Health Network, we identify creative and practical ways to reshape how work works, which we call a dual-agenda work redesign. Dual-agenda work redesigns prompt employees and managers to look at how work can be changed in ways that benefit employees (and their families) and also benefit the organization. We demonstrate that those changes work well for employees, their families, and also the organizations that employ them.3

This study establishes that things can change for the better. Innovative initiatives like the one we describe can create a new normal. In that new normal, employees have greater authority to make their own decisions, managers and coworkers recognize and support the realities of life outside of work, and everyone focuses less on when and where the work happens and more on working effectively and efficiently together. Working “smarter” includes dropping some tasks and meetings and turning off technologies from time to time. We show that the rules, everyday practices, and expectations can be changed, even though, as our research in TOMO reveals, redesign is hard to sustain in the face of other organizational changes like new leaders in the executive ranks.

The status quo can seem intransigent. But there are ways forward to more sustainable, enjoyable, and effective work lives if we have the will, power, and imagination to push for that. This is, ultimately, a promising perspective on the future of work.

This piece is an excerpt from Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do about It by Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen.

About the authors

Erin L. Kelly is the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management and an affiliate of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research and the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative. Twitter @_elkelly Phyllis Moen is a McKnight Presidential Chair, professor of sociology, and director of the Life Course Center at the University of Minnesota. Her books include, most recently, Encore Adulthood: Boomers on the Edge of Risk, Renewal, and Purpose. Kelly and Moen’s research on work overload has been featured in the New York Times Magazine.


[1] See Arne Kalleberg’s (2009, 2011) description of good jobs and bad jobs and the polarization of American work. Economists often focus on wages as the primary measure of good jobs, but we adopt a broader perspective on job quality similar to Kalleberg’s.

[2] We build on the dual-agenda approach developed by Lotte Bailyn, Deborah Kolb, and their colleagues to pursue the dual goals of enhancing gender equity (often by addressing work–life challenges) and improving work effectiveness. See Bailyn (2006), Fletcher, Bailyn, and Blake Beard (2009), and Rapoport et al. (2001). Throughout the book, we use “dual agenda” broadly to refer to organizational changes that address both work effectiveness and workers’ ability to live healthy lives and pursue their personal or family commitments.

[3] The Work, Family, and Health Network was an interdisciplinary research team that was funded by a cooperative agreement through the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (Grant # U01HD051217, U01HD051218, U01HD051256, U01HD051276), National Institute on Aging (Grant # U01AG027669), Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (Grant # U010H008788, U01HD059773). Grants from the William T. Grant Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Administration for Children and Families provided additional funding. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of these institutes and offices. You can learn more about this collaborative study in appendix 2, as well as chapters 4, 5, and 6 where we review specific findings from TOMO. The research team conducted a parallel study in thirty long-term care sites, which are commonly called nursing homes. The STAR initiative was customized for that workforce and that industry’s concerns, with some positive effects. See Berkman et al. (2015), Hammer et al. (2016), Hurtado et al. (2016), Kossek et al. (2019), and Marino et al. (2016). Analysis of the nursing home study is still ongoing, and new publications will be posted at