The ability to work under pressure is a highly demanded job skill. There are even many people who are proud to say that they are able to work under time pressure and show it on their resume.
There is no doubt that the labor market has changed a lot in recent decades. Multiple pending tasks, increasingly tight deadlines and demands for almost total availability make working against the clock the norm, instead of the exception. In a society that prizes productivity above all things, it couldn’t be any other way. However, if we don’t stop it, the pressure of time will crush us. Literally.
The consequences of working under pressure for a long time
To some extent, it is normal for work to generate some level of pressure. Working, at times, demands effort, involves overcoming obstacles, solving problems and, sometimes, overcoming ourselves. That supposes a considerable expenditure of energy and a certain level of tension. Therefore, it is important to learn to deal with the stress of deadlines and to be able to face the pressure when we must improve our performance.
However, that level of pressure cannot be sustained for too long, nor should it become the norm. We all have a stress tolerance and when we exceed it, the consequences of working against the clock do not take long to appear.
Very soon we will go from eustress, that dose of positive stress that motivates us, provides energy and even activates our creativity, to distress, a destructive stress on a mental and physical level. The stress of working under pressure causes our performance to plummet. Not only does it create exhaustion, but it also often blocks us, in a way that backfires on us.
It often also leads to irritability and frustration. In fact, researchers at the Johannes Gutenberg University found that time pressure at work can be worse than lengthening working hours. Employees who were pressured to work faster showed higher levels of stress and irritability, also at home, and their work engagement fell.
Another study conducted at the University of Calabria revealed that working under time pressure affects our cognitive performance, both verbal and logical functioning. So how is it possible that there is also research showing that working under pressure is a good thing?
The explanation comes from an experiment carried out in Germany over eight weeks in which it was found that initially working against the clock had a positive effect for people who took it on as a challenge. However, they also found that this positive effect was reversed over the weeks. They concluded that “Although a short-term raise may be beneficial for a period of time, stable and prolonged exposure to time pressure reduces job commitment and demotivates workers.”
In short, working under time pressure isn’t always bad, but when it becomes the norm, we’ll pay the price.
We need to learn to work under pressure, but we also need to learn to say “no”
For a long time, working under pressure has been considered a desirable skill. However, that image is changing thanks to new psychological studies that show that tight deadlines and high workloads reduce performance and, of course, affect the psychological and physical health of workers.
A hectic pace of work, in which we start a useless race against the clock, is neither sustainable nor desirable. Work should be, for the most part, a source of professional and personal satisfaction, not a well of stress and discomfort. Pressure should be kept within reasonable and healthy limits.
We need to understand that the pressure to finish as soon as possible – or for yesterday – ends up being counterproductive. It affects our results, increases the chances that we will make mistakes and pushes us to carry out work that is far from the excellence that we could aspire to with more reasonable deadlines.
We need to be aware of our limits and not accept our own “forced labor camp”, as the philosopher Byung-Chul Han called it. We live in a performing society and it is easy to be led to believe that if we are not capable of working under time pressure accepting almost inhuman deadlines, we are not up to the task. It is not like this. It is a fallacy.
Society and machines can run as long as they want, but every human being has limits. Those limits do not make him a worse or a better person, more or less valuable, but simply human. We need to recognize when we are about to exceed those limits, especially if working under pressure starts to become the norm.
Rejecting this permanent pressure does not mean that we are less capable, but only that we need more time to do our job better and to do it more comfortably. It means, above all, that we value our mental balance and our health above expectations and pressures. And, perhaps, with any luck, it means that we are taking a step to change a working model that is not sustainable – nor desirable.
Baethge, A. et. Al. (2019) “Some days won’t end ever”: Working faster and longer as a boundary condition for challenge versus hindrance effects of time pressure. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology; 24(3): 322–332.
Baethge, A. et. Al. (2018) A matter of time? Challenging and hindering effects of time pressure on work engagement. Work and Stress; 32(3): 228-247.
De Paola, M. & Gioia, F. (2016) Who Performs Better under Time Pressure? Results from a Field Experiment. Journal of Economic Psychology; 53: 37-53.