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Econ 050: Stress and ambition in young workers

Date:11 October 2019
Econ 050 is a podcast on the economics and business topics that matter to the Netherlands and the wider world, made by the Faculty of Economics and Business and the Northern Times.
Econ 050 is a podcast on the economics and business topics that matter to the Netherlands and the wider world, made by the Faculty of Economics and Business and the Northern Times.

For young professionals in particular, starting a new job can feel like grasping in the dark. The uncertainty of trying to figure out your place in a complex work environment can become very stressful very quickly. You may feel like you have to say “yes” to everything that is asked of you, but does being involved in multiple projects at your workplace ultimately improve or worsen your job performance? Can sticking your neck out and volunteering to take on more work end up backfiring?

In the latest episode of podcast Econ 050, assistant professor Joost van de Brake explains the results of his recent research into such questions. Listen to the full episode here to hear about the ways in which employers may be able to provide more certainty for their staff in a dynamic work place. Available in your favourite podcast app such as Spotify or iTunes. Don't forget to subscribe!

On why employees are asked to be involved in multiple projects:

Joost van de Brake: Aside from one's performance, I think the first criteria is expertise, especially nowadays where many projects need different people with different types of expertise. So expertise is importance and other skills as well. And within the organization, once you have an overview of all the people that are suitable for your projects, you will - that was our theory at least - you will want the person with the highest performance, of course. And that's why high performing employees are more often involved in multiple teams at the same time than people that are that perform less well.
Traci White: And does expertise always imply somebody who has more years of experience or can it be somebody who has a really niche knowledge about a certain thing?
van de Brake: No, functional expertise. So you can think if you think about research projects for example. So sometimes you need someone that's really good in collecting data, someone who’s good in analysing data, someone who has connections that allow you to collect data, someone that develops the theory that works in a theoretical framework, which obviously comes first but still you need different people with a wide range of expertise.

What are the costs and benefits from being involved in multiple teams?

van de Brake: New social environments and new teams require some form of adaptation, and it takes time. That costs cognitive resources, and therefore you may experience a decrease in performance because I cannot focus on my tasks: first I have to get used to all these different new environments that I'm working in, I have to familiarize myself with the environment and with the people and with the tasks. And that takes effort and therefore my overall performance may go down. But after a while - that's what we found in the data - when people got used to their involvement in multiple teams, their performance went up, and the second theoretical perspective was social capital theory, and then the idea was that if people work in multiple teams, teams imply people, right? So you work with different people in different teams, then maybe you can benefit from all the different people that you work with in all these different social environments. For example, maybe I learn something or we do something in one team and I can transfer that knowledge or information to a second team that I'm involved in, and that directly benefits the team but also me in particular because I am the person that comes up with the idea.

Does having a mix of different tasks keep you more engaged with your work or come at the expense of being able to focus?

van de Brake: If you are in multiple teams that are highly similar to each other, there's a good chance that there is not as much to learn from the projects. But you have to think: what is variety? Is it about me? Is it about what I am doing within these teams? For example, if I am a statistician and I'm involved in multiple research projects -
White: In the same role in those projects.
van de Brake: Yes, but these projects can be very different, in different faculties or even departments within our faculty with very different people and different interests. But my role can be very similar, it's just collecting data. So people will collect data, they hand it over to me, I do my regression analysis or more maybe complex things, but these are all formal procedures and the tasks may be the same. So in the end, it's just me sitting in my office and performing certain tasks, right? So different projects, maybe a different deadline, different people that give me these assignments, but what I do with in each project is basically the same.

On how uncertainty for young professional impacts their job performance:

van de Brake: They don't know what's expected of them. So people without a lot of experience, once they are involved in a lot of different projects, it becomes much harder to understand what all these different people in different teams expect from them in terms of their performance or what they do and how they should perform their work, what they should do to accomplish their tasks – that’s all much harder. And that makes sense, because if you work in many different teams or projects, or you work on many different things in general, you can spend less time familiarizing yourself with specific things you or the people that you work with. Cultural differences, normative differences - we do things in a different way within this project, et cetera. But that translates to society in general, that certainty has decreased and people, especially younger people even or people with less general work experience, they just don't have the resources and the experience to cope with all these complexities and uncertainties.

On how to relieve uncertainty and help employees avoid burn out:

van de Brake: So I think awareness is very important. And there are things that you could do to prevent burnout. So in terms of reducing uncertainty, you could arrange more frequent feedback meetings, for example, or implement a mentoring system. Something that we do in our department for new PhD students is that they get a mentor, and I think that could help. So of course these are minor things but again if you think about that in a total package there are multiple things that you use.