Intense job demands have a more immediate impact on workers’ routine compliance with professional standards than has been previously recognized, perhaps even as quickly as over the course of a single work shift, according to a new study.
Previous research has found a correlation between job demands — such as work overload, time pressure and emotional demands — and compliance over lengthy intervals. But researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina say it really doesn’t take all that long to get workers’ minds off “important secondary tasks” such as complying with safety guidelines.
“[A] day in the saddle can indeed take its toll where immediate and continuous job demands result in a gradual reduction in compliance with professional standards over the course of day,” they concluded in a paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
The authors reached this conclusion by gathering data from a system that measures when hospital employees use hand soap and hand sanitizer dispensers. More than 4,157 caregivers working in 35 different hospitals participated in the study, allowing the researchers to generate a data set of almost 14 million “unique hand hygiene opportunities.”
Most workers weren’t in compliance at all, and the compliance got worse as the work shift went on, the study found.
“When we first plotted the raw data, we were surprised by the significant, strong decline we observed in hand hygiene over the course of a single shift,” lead author Hengchen Dai told the Harvard Business Review.
According to the study, increased fatigue isn’t solely to blame for the drop in compliance. The intensity of work demands also play a role, Dai told HBR, wearing out “our self-regulatory muscles” and “leading us to focus more on primary tasks and devote less attention to secondary tasks.”
Dai suggested that the findings may be true of other professionals including oil field services workers and investment bankers, who might be inclined to overlook trading rules during the course of their long workdays.
As far as mitigating the problem, the study recommends, among other things, that organizations give their employees regular, significant breaks.