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Psychological Hazards in the workplace: Role overload

Updated: Aug 22

Author(s): Sheridan M

In the year 2012 the world did not end, Stephen Harper was still the prime minister of Canada, the NHL locked-out its players yet again, and all eyes were on the 2012 London Olympic summer games. Meanwhile, I was a high-spirited 20-year-old ecstatic to land a full-time position as an administrative assistant at a firm. I had 22 primary role functions in support of my reporting manager who oversaw the Canadian operations of a global entity. My tasks ranged from opening duties to financial administration, annual inventory reports, shipping orders, customer service management, and year-end tax receipts. I began early and stayed as late as 9 p.m. some evenings without being paid overtime. My annual salary was $28k and yet I could not have been happier. Six months later, when I fell asleep on the job, reality had set in. According to my manager, I had taken a 30-minute nap at my desk. He described my head being extended back and my mouth ajar after a customer found me unresponsive. To my surprise I was called into his office at the end of the day and was handed an official written-up notice while also being threatened with further disciplinary actions and termination. I was burned out, exhausted, and overloaded to the point that I had no recollection of even closing my eyes that day. I was in complete shock.

Psychological Hazards

Burnout is characterized by an overall negative mood, emotional exhaustion, and depersonalization, consequently resulting in risks of physical or psychological health effects (Huang et al., 2022). Role overload describes conditions of work where people perceive role demands as exceeding their time, energy, resources, and capabilities (Tang & Vandenberghe, 2021) In a hypothesized model, we can understand that role overload may act as a hindrance stressor that triggers burnout, resulting in psychological strain; thus, overload imposes psychological hazards. Such conditions impose adverse ramifications to organizations and workers such as psychologically related illnesses or injuries and the costs associated with those risks. Research has found that role overload undermines work performance and imposes negative psychological effects ranging from stress, anxiety, and depression (emotional exhaustion) to burnout (fatigue) (Huang et al., 2022). Prolonged exposure to psychological stressors furthers the risk of adverse effects to physical health such as headaches, low energy, high blood pressure, and heart attacks (Gatien, 2020). In addition to increased turnover, a reduction in organizational commitment, citizenship behaviours, and work performance, the reduction in quality of work impacts productivity, employee morale, and motivation, which are the pinnacle of organizational success (Tang & Vandenberghe, 2021). For instance, the Job-Demand-Support-Model (JDSM) (Karasek & Theorell, 1990) theory indicates that high demands of workers with minimal autonomy leads to elevated risks of coronary disease (Shultz et al., 2015). This model suggests that there is a correlation between high job demands and stress when there is little control, resulting in negative health effects. In further detail, the theory also focusses on the connection that leaders play in helping workers manage stress and the outcomes related to lack of personal control. However, leader support (social support) may be an ineffective intervention when observing a broad spectrum of organizational size and structure. Who then is at risk? Globalization, economic developments, and increased consumer demands equate to higher demands of employees in all sectors. With regards to hierarchal business structures, lower-level workers with inadequate resources and support such as front-line workers, lower ranking workers, salespersons, or contract workers with inadequate resources or capabilities are at an increased risk (Huang et al., 2022). However, all workers may be at risk with increased economic and performance demands. With time sensitive deadlines and productivity indicators, workers may opt to deviate from health and safety requirements such as not taking scheduled breaks or following protocols and may subject themselves to further risks. According to Gracia & Martínez-Córcoles (2018), role overload leads to risky employee behaviours when safety is compromised in favour of performance. Role overload fuels risky behaviours such as shortcuts, which allow members to act faster depending on the demands. Furthermore, workers may view these unsafe behaviours as a required part of the job, creating, in the long term, a normalization of deviance and a lack of concern for risks (Gracia & Martínez-Córcoles, 2018). On the contrary, to workers who intentionally deviate from safety procedures, other workers who experience different forms of work-related strain are invertedly at risk for work-related accidents. For instance, consistent evidence suggests that high levels of stress may be a consequence of organizational strain reactions (e.g., increased cognitive failures, impaired ability to concentrate; i.e., major depressive disorder or anxiety disorder.) (Gatien, 2020). Consequently, research concludes that the role stressors studied are potential antecedents of behaviours and stressors or risk to occupational health and safety (Gracia & Martínez-Córcoles, 2018). Organizations are also at risk when assessing work overload as it pertains to psychological strains. According to Gatien (2020), work-related illnesses and injuries cost the Canadian economy $9-$19B annually in direct and indirect costs. So, what can be done?

Practical recommendations for employees:

In reference to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), there is a clause that gives workers the right to refuse work that they believe is unsafe. The OHSA outlines specific guidelines for doing so; in addition to this, the Employment Standards Act (ESA) outlines guidelines for under which conditions employees ought to work, i.e., 8 hours a day, weekly limits, and designated break times or work times. These legislations are carried out within the various 14 jurisdictions in Canada. In addition to these practical regulations, I can make some practical actionable recommendations to employees.

1) Self-Management: As legislation defines employees have some level of control over the work they partake in, employees can therefore take steps to manage their own work-related stressors. Become familiar with your stressors or triggers; then, employees can take steps in stress reduction through mental and physical wellness activities and intervention by being self-aware. How many hours are spent doing work whether during work hours or outside of work hours? Thus, create boundaries for a healthy work-life balance (learn to say “no”).

2) Self-Education: Employees can familiarize themselves with the extent of their benefits or organizational initiatives to promote health and wellness. Many organizations offer incentives for prioritizing your own health and safety. This includes regulation, knowing your organizations’ policies and rules, and advocating on your own behalf.

3) Improve workplace culture: Every organization appreciates leadership, initiative, and creative qualities. I recommend creating a committee centred around wellness. This can be done by initiating an employee-run fund for monthly employee outings. This will improve employee relationships and morale. Create and foster an environment where people feel connected and can create a safer and more productive workplace, i.e., play golf once monthly, lunch and learn, casual Fridays, etc.

4) (Cultivate your own work-life balance) Take a break: Many times, workers look to organizations to define a work-life balance that suits their lifestyle or personal needs; however, this is virtually impossible because as they say, “business is business,” and the needs of the organization invertedly always come first. Therefore, employees need to become self reliant and responsible to achieve this harmony on their own. Some examples include not taking work home with you during scheduled vacations, time off, or sick days; use it to rest and recharge and not try to get ahead at work. Reduce screen time, and instead of sitting in the cafeteria at lunch, take a walk outside for some fresh air.


Duxbury, L., Stevenson, M., & Higgins, C. (2018). Too much to do, too little time: Role overload and stress in a multi-role environment. International Journal of Stress Management, 25(3), 250–266.

Gatien, K. F. (2020). Management of Occupational Health & Safety (8th ed.). Top Hat.

Gracia, F. J., & Martínez-Córcoles, M. (2018). Understanding risky behaviours in nuclear facilities: The impact of role stressors. Safety Science, 104, 135–143.

Huang, Q., Wang, Y., Yuan, K., & Liu, H. (2022). How Role Overload Affects Physical

and Psychological Health of Low-ranking Government Employees at Different

Ages: The Mediating Role of Burnout. Safety and health at work, 13(2), 207–212.

Karasek, R., & Theorell, T. (1990). Healthy Work: Stress, Productivity, and the

Reconstruction of Working Life. New York: Basic Books.

Poulose, S., & Dhal, M. (2020). Role of perceived work–life balance between work

overload and career commitment. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 35(3), 169–183.

Shultz, K., Wang, M., & Olson, D. (2015). Role overload and underload in relation to Occupational Stress and Health, Stress and Health, 26(2), 99-111.

Tang, W.-G., & Vandenberghe, C. (2021). Role overload and work performance: The role of psychological strain and leader–member exchange. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.

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