Applying behavioral science to find out why we work so much

Work Life Conflict

Many Americans consider work-life balance a “nice-to-have” in their careers. It may even be undesirable, as busyness is often a symbol of importance. But work-life conflict is about more than happiness or status. Loss of sleep, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and higher rates of depression and anxiety: these are just a few of the long-term consequences of overwork that can cause health challenges. In fact, 120,000 deaths in the United States are attributable to chronic overwork each year. That makes work-life conflict a public health threat.

Despite the magnitude of this problem, public discussion about work-life balance tends to orbit around a single solution: how individual people need to prioritize better or manage their time more effectively. Too frequently, this conversation misses entirely the ways that work itself is designed. It also fails to take into account the complex ways real people behave. That’s why we believe that employers also need to shoulder some of the burden of reducing work-life conflict.

In April 2016, ideas42, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, began to delve into the root causes of work-life conflict from a behavioral perspective—and offer potential solutions.

What we’ve uncovered is that both work and life are changing in profound ways. First, workers today have more personal responsibilities than workers 50 years ago did—for good reason. While the ‘male breadwinner’ model of the middle class is receding into memory, it can’t be denied that work for this group was originally designed with the assumption that an employee had a partner running their home. Women now make up half the workforce—a positive step forward, both for women and the economy—but the way in which people work hasn’t quite caught up with this change in social norm. Many families today have two working parents (and due to stagnant wages, many need two salaries to get by), yet there was no corresponding adjustment of that original design of the workday. Second, advances in communication technology have made it easy to work constantly, leaching into our ‘down time.’ Laptops and smartphones now allow workers to keep working once they leave the office. Even if they intend to disconnect for the evening, people are actively called back to ‘work mode’ by incoming e-mails or notifications.

In response to the changing conditions of work and personal life, some organizations have offered new ‘benefits’ that can inadvertently tether employees to their jobs around the clock. For example, some employers now offer employees more flexibility to control their schedules, increased autonomy over what to work on and how much to work overall, and the ability to collaborate with colleagues across their entire organization to reach the best possible outcomes. While supplied as ‘perks,’ these features of work can interact with human decision-making in surprising ways – flexibility means allocating time sub-optimally across 24 hours, autonomy can become a compulsive need to go ‘above and beyond’ in order to fit into a misperceived norm, and productive collaboration morphs into packed schedules that never seem to be a conscious choice.

With a better understanding of the conditions that create work-life conflict, we can begin to address them. Behaviorally informed solutions to many of these problems can be found in our report Work and Life: A Behavioral Approach to Work-Life Conflict. Drawn from qualitative interviews at three organizations around the country, our designs range from creating new organizational policies and practices to tweaking software so that it better serves real people. Our aim with these recommendations is to reduce work-life conflict for American knowledge workers and prevent work from negatively impacting health.

Interested in the behavioral science of work-life balance? Reach out to us at or tweet at @ideas42 to join the conversation.