Why going the extra mile at work could be a backward step

That exhausting extra mile. Shutterstock

In an increasingly competitive world, employers are always looking for ways to get more from their staff. Typically, this involves encouraging employees to knuckle down and “go the extra mile” in an effort to improve the overall performance of their organisation. In management jargon, this is referred to as improving “organisational citizenship behaviour”, or OCB.

Widely regarded as being beneficial for both parties, doing more than the minimum required can have positive outcomes for employees and their organisations. The worker puts in extra time, or takes on extra responsibility, and feels more engaged with their work and positive about their career prospects. The employer gets committed staff, with improved productivity or results.

But we know little about the costs of going that extra mile. What are the downsides of putting in the hours and effort above and beyond the call of duty? Our research shows that employees who regularly act in this way experience higher levels of emotional exhaustion and work-family conflict. This is especially true of those who generally carry out their responsibilities at a high level. And just as the perceived benefits affect both employees and employers, the negatives also have a two-way impact. Companies need to ensure that the gains made by encouraging employees to go the extra mile are not outweighed in the longer term.

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.

To understand which conditions might have the most negative effect on employees’ well-being, we looked at five different types of behaviour: altruism (helping a colleague), conscientiousness (going beyond the minimum), civic virtue (involvement in the organisation), courtesy (avoiding work-related problems with others) and sportsmanship (tolerating inconveniences and impositions of work).

We were especially interested in the effects of the most time-consuming activities – conscientiousness and altruism – since these have the potential to exhaust employees emotionally and leave less time for family life. We also believed the greatest impact would be where employees were already doing well at work.

We collected our data in the telephone customer contact centre of a UK banking organisation. The employees were involved in responding to customer enquiries, opening new accounts, as well as selling investment, insurance and mortgage products. Surveying employees and their supervisors, combined with studying company records, brought two major findings.

Work-life imbalance

First, we discovered that going beyond the minimum required was directly linked to higher levels of emotional exhaustion and work-family conflict. This was even more likely to occur when a results-based reward system was in place for the workforce. Where individuals are held accountable for their results, going beyond the call of duty can carry negative consequences.

Second, employees who already performed well in their job and had a high level of conscientiousness also suffered significantly higher emotional exhaustion and work-family conflict. Those who exerted greater effort in their work and family roles, with a general sense of not wanting to let people down, found they had little left in reserve, increasing the challenges of balancing work with a healthy family life.

Or not. Shutterstock

There is also pressure on employees not only to be “good soldiers” who take on extra work, but also simply to demonstrate high levels of performance. Our study shows that doing well at work leads to more work. Managers are prone to delegate more tasks and responsibilities to conscientious employees who are likely to try to maintain consistently high levels of output. The consequences, however, may be job-related stress and less time for family responsibilities.

This does not mean we should ignore the positive aspects of going the extra mile. This kind of employee behaviour is advantageous for organisations because it enhances performance, and for individuals it can lead to better supervisory appraisals and higher reward recommendations. But OCB can carry personal costs especially when time consuming, and it can compete with other job-related activities for an individual’s time and resources and potentially lead to a loss in employee well-being. Employees may be able to sustain this level of performance in the short term, but in the longer term emotional exhaustion may take its toll.

The costs to employees may have repercussions far outside the workplace. Managers should therefore think twice before asking the same high performers to take on yet more additional tasks. Employees meanwhile need to consider the costs as well as the benefits of going the extra mile. Or they may not last the distance.