These days, workers expect to exceed their job descriptions if they want to get ahead – or even keep their positions at all. How did we get here?
Ever since Jhanvi Gudka secured her first job in public relations at 22 years old, she’s always gone that extra mile. She’d come into the office while visibly unwell, she says, and spend hours trying to meet “impossibly high standards” on first drafts of work.
“In one very memorable incident, I slipped while running for the train in the rain, and turned up to the office with bloody scratches and a swollen lip for a meeting that I felt I couldn't miss,” remembers Gudka, now 31. Now working as a head of sustainability and senior account director at a communications agency in London, the feeling of needing to go above and beyond has stayed with her throughout her career. She says that “perhaps [it’s] from an in-built fear that doing anything below a certain standard will put my job in jeopardy”.
Whether it’s staying late, working through the weekend to perfect a project, or showing up no matter what, many employees routinely put in more hours and perform more tasks than their job description sets out. And though for some, that extra effort is about getting one step ahead in their career, for others, it feels like a built-in, minimum expectation from their employer.
This reality has been laid bare by the quiet quitting phenomenon, where disengaged workers refuse to work beyond the hours and tasks they’re paid to do. It’s sparked a wildfire discussion, central to which is the idea of how normalised it’s become to expect workers to do more and more in the first place.
The reality is that a workplace culture that requires employees to go the extra mile has developed over several decades. Though it brings clear benefits for organisations looking to increase productivity, for workers it can breed stress, resentment and burnout. And with Covid-19 triggering millions to revaluate their work-life balance, this is a status quo that some are no longer willing to put up with.
From exception to expectation
“There have always been people who want to get ahead by looking good at work,” says Anthony Klotz, an organisational psychologist and associate professor at University College London’s School of Management. But 100 years ago, those people were the exception rather than the rule, not least because they were given short shrift by colleagues.
According to The Hawthorne Studies, which analysed workers at an electrical plant in Chicago from 1927 to 1932, employees on the production line who worked faster than the rest of the group were labelled ‘rate busters’. “When the foreman wasn't looking, they'd 'bing' this person, which means to punch them really hard on the arm to send a message not to make the rest of them look bad,” says Klotz.
But in the century since that study was carried out, major changes to work, culture and how careers feed into our identity would likely see those same workers react very differently.
“There’s been a growing intensification of work,” explains Katie Bailey, professor of work and employment at King’s College London. Now, workers are expected “to be engaged, enthusiastic and motivated. They should be putting in extra hours and effort in order to get noticed or promoted”. And these expectations are now so embedded and internalised by workers that many fear if they don’t go above and beyond, they’ll, at best, never get promoted; at worst they’ll be labelled slackers.
It's hard to pinpoint a precise moment when this change happened. Instead, several factors have combined to create these conditions, she explains.
First, the declining power of trade unions catalysed the shift. In the UK in 1980, for example, union membership was 12.2 million. By 2020, that had halved to about 6.6 million, according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. That change has “eroded the rights and bargaining power of employees”, she says.
The nature of job roles has also changed in that time, points out Klotz. As automation has eliminated many manual jobs, workers’ roles have become harder to define. While the job expected of a bricklayer is relatively simple to set out in a job description, for instance, the same doesn’t go for a graphic designer or a management consultant.
The less that those work boundaries are defined, the more exposed these workers are to what Klotz calls “work creep” – the steady expansion in tasks staff are expected to complete.
“As jobs have become more complex, there’s become an expectation by employers that staff will fill in these gaps when needed,” he adds. Employees slowly internalise this expectation over time as they see colleagues rewarded or promoted for fulfilling extra duties. “It becomes a signal of a worker that’s committed, responsible and a good future leader,” he says. Or, for those who don’t step up, the sign of a worker who isn’t trying hard enough.
The less work boundaries are defined, the more exposed workers are to “work creep”
The third factor is a growing emphasis on employee engagement, says Bailey. It’s one that has taken root in organisations looking to improve productivity by creating a workplace culture that leaves staff enthused about coming to work, rather than suffering with the Sunday Blues.
At first glance, this can be a good thing, of course. “There’s plenty of research that shows engaged employees are happier, more satisfied, more committed and enjoy higher levels of wellbeing,” she says. But there’s also a strong link between higher levels of engagement and working extra hours or taking on discretionary tasks, she adds. That’s because many organisations have sought to boost engagement by rallying employees behind a common purpose, such as delivering a meaningful impact on society. This creates a tool with which they “can enhance the commitment, motivation and effort” of their staff, explains Bailey. Workers accept this intensification because of a desire to work for purpose-driven organisations, she explains. “But by the same token, they risk people becoming burned out through excessively intense work.”
Compounding this is how interlinked work and careers have become with our sense of self, adds Bailey. “There’s now more emphasis on securing your identity and your sense of who you are from the work that you do,” she says. That creates even greater willingness to go above and beyond if it means getting ahead at work and carving out a successful career.
And fuelling this even further has been the growth of hustle culture, says Klotz – an era of side hustles and endless productivity that picked up pace in the early noughties, and hit a peak just before the pandemic, he says. Whether it was juggling multiple extracurricular activities, travelling every weekend or putting in those extra hours at work, “you wore your busyness as a badge of honour” and a sign of success – all which suited employers just fine.
Feeling the pressure more than others
The combination of these factors has turned going above and beyond at work from the exception into the expectation. And that’s left millions looking to get ahead – or just keep their jobs – with a quandary: either push past their job description, or end up looking like a slacker.
Some workers, however, feel this pressure more than others.
There are certain jobs in which eye-wateringly long days are now seen as par for the course, says Bailey. This includes the likes of investment bankers or management consultants, where big pay packets are seen as justification for little to no free time. In vocational jobs too, such as education or healthcare, there’s an assumption that staff are passionate enough to happily stay late or take on extra tasks. According to an NHS survey in January 2022, three-quarters of healthcare staff said they took on extra unpaid hours because of a pressure to do so out of commitment or goodwill.
In some countries specifically, higher cultural expectations of going above and beyond have pushed workers to tolerate a huge amount of pressure at work. In Japan, for example, the concept is so prevalent that there’s a term for it – karoshi, which was coined in the 1970s. It literally translates as ‘work to death’.
And at an individual level, some workers have felt pressure to go the extra mile far more keenly than their colleagues. For Gudka, who is of Indian heritage, being a person of colour has definitely played a part in fuelling the fear that she needs to work beyond her job description, she says. “I believe this inherent fear is cultural and something that many people from BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] communities will be able to relate to.”
Indeed, a 2021 study by McKinsey showed black employees in the US were far more likely to feel they needed to work twice as hard as their white colleagues in order to achieve the same level of progression, as a result of unfair performance management and promotions.
When women go above and beyond, they don’t get the same credit for these extra tasks that men do
Women, too, are more likely to find themselves going above and beyond. According to a 2017 US study, women are more likely than male colleagues to (reluctantly) volunteer to take on extra tasks at work because of society’s expectations that women should be happier to engage “in communal behaviours”, i.e. help out the group, says Klotz. Even worse, when they do go above and beyond, they’re not getting the credit for it. The same study found many extra tasks women are expected to take on have little to zero impact on their performance evaluation.
Although this overwork has become ingrained and expected, there are signs it may be on its way out, at least in part.
Even before the pandemic, employees were growing less and less willing to go the extra mile. A 2018 study by consultancy firm Gartner showed US workers’ effort was at its lowest levels in a decade, with fewer than one-fifth of employees saying they had a willingness to go above and beyond job expectations because of a widening wage gap between company executives and the average worker, and dwindling opportunities for rewards or progression.
And now, as Covid-19 has triggered a mass re-evaluation of work and careers, there’s a growing pushback against the expectation that doing well at work automatically means doing more, says Bailey.
“Younger employees in particular are very concerned with having a good work-life balance and having high levels of wellbeing,” she says. “They've got a much greater level of awareness of their personal, mental and physical health, than older workers may have had. Plus, with wages stagnating compared with inflation a lot of employees are starting to ask why they should go above and beyond for their employer when they're not getting so much back from them.”
“In the last couple of years, millions of employees have questioned the value of the time they spend at work,” adds Klotz. “Is this a good investment of my time? In many cases, when you do that calculation, the answer may be no.” Companies are very conscious of this calculation by staff too, he adds, which is leading many organisations to take a look at how to reduce chronic overworking and stress, and find more sustainable approaches. “But it is tough because the alternative means their employees aren't going to do extra work, which means hiring more and that creates a competitive disadvantage.”
In other words, with a culture of going above and beyond so embedded into many workplace structures, change will take time.
The same may be true at a personal level. “My attitude has changed insofar as I’m much better at recognising when my actions aren't healthy or sustainable,” says Gudka. “However, over the years, I’ve also come to associate going above and beyond with a strong work ethic, and so it remains hard to delineate the two. I think going above and beyond is very much a sign of our times and it reflects an ambitious and, crucially, diverse workforce who are determined to succeed and break glass ceilings where they see them.”