At his last job as human resources director for an auto parts manufacturer, Art Quinn witnessed firsthand the toll that increased workloads can have on employees, especially those working for hourly wages.
Like Charlie Chaplin's character in the silent film-era comedy Modern Times about an assembly line worker who loses it after tightening one bolt too many, Quinn says that when employees are pushed to their limits, the workplace can be a dehumanizing place.
"I think it leads to a lack of trust, respect and optimism in the leaders of the company," says Quinn, now a Durham, North Carolina-based consultant. "People start to hunker down and they look at their job and who pays them and they create their own little cocoon as a way to cope and feel in control."
A recent Workforce Management survey of 713 human resources professionals indicates Quinn's experience is not unique. Eight in 10 respondents said their organizations had increased workloads compared with before the recession.
Most of those seeing extra duties reported negative effects on employees, with 40 percent of those repondents saying worker health problems had increased, and nearly 80 percent saying employee engagement had fallen.
Some employees feel trapped, afraid to quit or speak up.
At his former company, Quinn says HR and senior managers tried to warn leadership that employees were strained to their limits and couldn't keep up the increased workload, but to no avail.
He says that no matter what HR leaders and many employees tried to do, the company continued to demand that hourly production workers put in between 25 to 40 overtime hours per week. Certain leaders of the company "would then also get frustrated when workers would take one of their allowed personal/sick days, which I know for a fact in many cases were taken by employees simply so they could sleep, go to a doctor's appointment or attend a child's school function," Quinn says.
Salaried employees put in long hours, too, he says, but had more freedom to take a half-day off for personal errands. The hourly workers, however, endured because "they knew that they couldn't make that kind of money anywhere else."
Frustrated by the company's unresponsiveness, Quinn quit. And he warns that companies like his former employer are setting themselves up for long-term trouble with employees.
"There's a quiet frustration and a growing cynicism," he says.
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Rita Pyrillis is Workforce Management's senior writer. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.