Top Performing Remote Workers Wield ‘Double-Edged Sword’
Recent Research: Burnout may be hitting high-performing remote workers hardest, with striking implications for millions of Americans
Today, more than 30 million American workers are still taking part in some type of remote work due to the pandemic.
After a year of dramatic adaptations, companies have been left to grapple with what changes – if any – they’ll carry through to the post-pandemic workplace, and what the implications will be on their workforces.
However, a recently uncovered factor may complicate those decisions. For some of the most dedicated and high-performing employees, burnout with remote work has been hidden by their continued achievements. That’s according to soon-to-be-released research in the Journal of Applied Psychology, co-authored by Dan Ganster, a professor of management at CSU’s College of Business.
The research, which could reshape how managers approach supporting the long-term well-being of their employees, explains how ambiguous expectations and undefined work boundaries can contribute to significantly higher levels of stress and job dissatisfaction among conscientious workers.
The acute impacts felt by organizations’ top employees could magnify the negative impacts of long-term remote work if left unaddressed.
The topic expands Ganster’s expansive body of research exploring workers’ mental and physical well-being and offering solutions to support them and their organizations.
The Impacts on Conscientious Workers
Ganster’s work doesn’t focus on all remote workers, but on those who demonstrate a personality trait called conscientiousness.
In the professional setting, conscientiousness is generally defined as being able to exert self-control, set and keep long-range goals, exercise deliberation, and take one’s obligations to others seriously.
It’s one of the ‘Big Five’ personality traits, parsed out by decades of psychological research. The other traits include extroversion, emotional stability, agreeableness and openness.
“Of all the personality traits, conscientiousness is the one that correlates the best, and most consistently, with job performance,” Ganster said. “In the work setting [conscientious employees] have a tendency towards workaholism. Even so, they generally experience better well-being.”
Conscientious workers are also more satisfied with their jobs, maintain a better work-life balance, experience less stress, live longer lives, and even have lower rates of cognitive decline as they age, according to research cited by Ganster and his coauthors.
‘A unique, naturally occurring quasi-experiment’
To research “Risks and Rewards of Conscientiousness During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Ganster and his coauthors leveraged their unique relationship, and years-long access, with a major hospitality company. In September of 2019, they compiled survey data from nearly 500 white-collar workers on their job satisfaction, work hours and performance.
Just a few months after the pandemic started, they were unexpectedly presented with the conditions for an unplanned ‘quasi-experiment’ due to conditions of the pandemic. So, they returned to gather the same information, from the same group of people, working the same jobs, with the same supervisors.
“We’re just incredibly lucky that we happened to measure these things back in 2019 when nobody was anticipating a pandemic and that there would be this huge disruption,” Ganster said.
As part of the surveys, the team also ranked employees along a sliding scale of conscientiousness based on self-reported qualities of thoroughness, reliability, perseverance, efficiency, follow through, and propensity for distraction.
What the team found when they started going through the survey data was striking:
They took the before and after performance data on conscientious workers and looked at it through the lens of weak and strong ‘situational strength.’
Strong situational strength is characterized by strong incentives.
That’s a strong incentive. In a typical office setting this looks more like a having a standardized culture, with norms for when people come in, whether they take work home with them at the end of the day, how often they’re responding to emails outside of business hours, and so on.
“Now, what happens when you remove all these office cultural cues and people are on their own, figuring out this more open-ended, ambiguous situation?” Ganster said. “You wind up with weak situational strength.”
The team hypothesized that in this weaker setting the positive qualities of conscientious workers would shine through even brighter. And they were right. However, they also found it was coming at a cost.
“The correlation between conscientiousness and rated job performance was significantly higher in 2020, working from home, then it was back in 2019,” Ganster said.
“In 2020, conscientious people were actually less satisfied in their jobs then the less conscientious people, and they felt more stress. It goes against what’s typically found.”
Amid all the ambiguity, conscientious workers were putting in significantly more hours, leaning harder into their tendencies toward workaholism, which increased the chances of burnout, turnover, and even illness. But, at the same time they were exceeding performance expectations.
“Conscientiousness is a double-edged sword. You get better performance appraisals, but there’s also a threat to your well-being in weak situations,” said Ganster, “This is because of your innate tendencies to want to get more done and exceed whatever standards you might think exist.”
How to Release the Pressure
As many in the country’s workforce are beginning to embrace more remote work and supervisors are recalibrating their management styles, these findings could be key to helping organizations and workers chart a better future.
“You really have to be cognizant of the pressures and tendencies toward workaholism for conscientious employees,” Ganster said. “You need to take more care monitoring hours works, setting boundaries, setting norms, modeling behavior and so forth.”