Similar to athletes in the pool or on the track, employees need to pace themselves in the office in order to avoid burning out, new research suggests.
The study from researchers at the University of Virginia and Chinese Academy of Sciences developed a model for how employees should best distribute their efforts during the day to prevent fatigue. Previous research has found that fatigue not only makes work more unpleasant, but it results in decreased productivity.
When developing the model, the researchers found that employees are best served by following one of two patterns, depending on the type of job they have.
One option is the "high-low-high effort pattern" which advises workers to manage fatigue by starting and ending their day off with maximum effort and intensity, but taking it a little bit easier during the middle of the day. [Want to increase productivity? Give employees more breaks.]
This pattern is similar to the strategy that Olympic swimmers and runners often use. The study's authors said these athletes typically try to lower their burn rate after getting off to a strong start so they have some energy left in their tank for a strong finish.
Some jobs, however, require employees to always perform at maximum intensity. This may include workers who operate machinery or provide customer service. In this "all-or-none" scenario, the researchers say the best pattern for employees to follow is to begin and end the day with "on" periods, but take breaks during the day.
Employers who insist on employees keeping a high pace all the time are harming their organization in the long run, according to the study. The researchers said fatigued employees leads to high turnover, low morale and low productivity.
Since fatigue often goes unnoticed until it is already causing problems, the study's authors said employers are best served by taking preemptive measures to ensure workers don't get burned out.
Manel Baucells, one of the study's authors and a professor at the University of Virginia, suggests that managers can help avoid fatigue by giving employees greater control over when they take breaks.
The researchers said their study isn't meant to say that employees should be working long hours. Working lengthy days is fine, as long as employees are given breaks during the day to recharge.
"Google seems to have learned this lesson and makes the work environment pleasant, promoting fun distractions, while at the same time encouraging long work hours," Baucells wrote in an article on the University of Virginia Darden School of Business's website.
For employees who work from home, it is important that they self-manage their time and effort. The study's authors said they need to avoid the temptation to push hard all day long.
"At-home workers should draw clear home/work boundaries in their schedules (and workspaces) to better facilitate a high-low-high effort, rather than putting in long hours that wind up yielding equivalent (or lower) outputs," Baucells wrote. "They may even consider starting work immediately upon rising in the morning to take advantage of showering and breakfast as times to rest and reduce accumulated fatigue."
In the end, the researchers believe employers will see the dividends in ensuring their employees don't become overfatigued from pushing themselves too hard.
"When it comes to rest and managing fatigue, the incentives of companies and workers are perfectly aligned: Reducing fatigue increases productivity, lowers the cost of providing effort, increasing work satisfaction, lowering turnover and absenteeism, and ultimately increasing profits," Baucell wrote.
The study was co-authored by Lin Zhao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.