Cubicle Land by Larsinio, Public Domain

Productivity, Overworking, & Incentives

(Image credit: “Cubicle land” by Larsinio, public domain)

University faculty might face a dilemma. On the one hand, productivity is required for faculty to keep their job, be promoted, and — for tenure track faculty — secure tenure. And one way to survive in the competitive academic market is to outshine the competition in terms of productivity. And one way to be more productive than the competition is to overwork yourself. After all, overworking is associated with greater productivity (Jacobs and Winslow 2004; see also Seals and Rodriguez 2006 and Thomas 1992). However, overworking is also associated with lower job dissatisfaction (ibid). So, overworking is not without cost. The dilemma faculty might face, then, is whether to prioritize job satisfaction or job security.

OVERWORKING

Perhaps shrewdly, faculty seem to prioritize job security. As far back as the 1940’s professors have reported working 50-60 hours a week (Charters 1942, Ziker et al 2013).

Interestingly, the opposite seems to happen in certain areas of the private sector. Neil Irwin reports on a study which suggests that some apparently overworked employees, especially men, might not actually be overworked; they might just be faking it (Reid 2015). Neil suggests that this problem could be the result of incentive structures. The idea is that some businesses reward the illusion of productivity more than actual productivity and when employees realize that actual productivity isn’t necessarily rewarded, then some employees find ways to game the system.

The problem in academia seems to result from the reverse incentive structure. That is, at universities, productivity is highly incentivized — perhaps over-incentivized. The results are also reversed. Faculty can’t feign productivity. If they want to survive, they’ve got to publish. So faculty will work far more than a conventional 40 hour week if it that’s what it takes to survive.†

WHAT TO DO?

Solving the problems of feigned productivity or overworking is not as simple as reversing the reward structures. Indeed, by reversing the reward structure we could end up trading one problem (lower job satisfaction or morale) for another (feigned working) — or vice versa. So if we want to address these problems, then we will need a more nuanced approach.

Insofar as incentives are effective, employees should be rewarded for being productive — truly productive, that is. But if a business wants its employees to avoid the costs of overworking, then it will not be enough to simply incentivize productivity. Businesses will need to place constraints on the levels of productivity that are rewarded. For example, businesses could stipulate that the lion’s share of one’s compensation, promotion, etc. are based on, among other things, some reasonable amount of productivity. But, businesses could also stipulate that additional reward for productivity beyond this reasonable amount diminishes considerably or perhaps entirely. Doing these two things would encourage employees to be reasonably productive without encouraging them to overwork.

This might sound like a promising solution. However, the success of this incentive structure depends on a few variables.

WHAT COUNTS AS ‘REASONABLE’?

First, it depends on how “reasonable” is defined. It may be difficult to define a reasonable amount of productivity. What is reasonable for some people might not be reasonable for others. Also, a reasonable amount of productivity might wax and wane over time for any given person. And if compensation is based on productivity, this would mean that employees could not count on a consistent amount of income, which might result in heightened anxiety (Anderson et al 2012Calvo and Castillo 2001). So, it might be best to (a) define “reasonable amount of productivity” as a range, rather than a single point on a spectrum and (b) allow for intermittent deviations from this range to be excused under certain conditions (e.g., company/department morale, personal morale, and who knows what else).

Defining and excusing productivity this way might be challenging but it is by no means impossible. After all, doctors have standards like this. My doctor recommends that my blood pressure remain within a certain range. But my doctor also expects my blood pressure to safely deviate from this range under certain circumstances (e.g., during exercise, while at work, after drinking a cup of coffee, etc.). So my doctor is not necessarily concerned every time my blood pressure deviates from the recommended range. Rather, my doctor is only concerned when my blood pressure is outside the recommended range for reasons that are not excusable. So, defining “reasonable” amounts of productivity with a range and outlining certain excusing conditions might work much like it does with blood pressure.

TIME MANAGEMENT

Second, the success of this incentive structure is dependent on how well people manage their time. For example, suppose I know that I will have to comment on and grade a pile of 50 papers a few times a semester. And suppose I know that I must hand these assignments back to students about 5 working days after they are submitted. And suppose I know that this will take 20-30 hours. If I know all of this, then once students turn in their assignments, I should not spend a few days working on something else before I get around to grading these assignments. Otherwise, I might have to overwork on the last couple days before the deadline. The point is that this overworking would not be caused by some unreasonable standard of productivity. Rather, it would be caused by me — in particular, it would be caused by my poor time management. So, if one is to implement the incentive structure being proposed, then one might want to be especially careful about hiring and rewarding people who can demonstrate their ability to manage time.

SUMMARY

Both feigned overworking and actual overworking can be serious problems for employees and institutions. Insofar as these problems are the result of incentive structures, the solution to these problems might be found by making adjustments to the incentive program. Specifically, employers could both (a) incentivize a reasonable range of expected productivity and (b) diminish or eliminate incentives for productivity beyond that range. This might encourage employees to be reasonably productive without exposing employees and institutions to the costs of overworking. Additionally, employers might (c) decide in advance on excusable conditions under which productivity can be expected to drop below the reasonable range. These strategies could help eliminate the potential dilemma of choosing between job security and job satisfaction as well as the problem of feigned productivity.

 


† I suppose there is evidence that some faculty are faking something, given the various reports of fraudulent data and suspicious analysis (see recent Vox and Nautilus articles). So perhaps over-incentivizing productivity, just like under-incentivizing productivity, can result in feigned productivity. Another point worth admitting is that the data on faculty working habits come from self-reports, and one might be suspicious of self-reports. However, prior to a principled argument and compelling evidence that faculty self-reports are non-veridical, it would be premature to discount the data.


 

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. When he is not teaching, in the lab, writing, exercising, or relaxing, he is blogging at www.byrdnick.com/blog