Job Creep Creates Overworked, Fatigued Workers

An unpredictable economy and persistent pressure on the bottom line has pushed employers to demand workers to do more with less…and often for less. Many companies are running lean and mean. Many support and collateral jobs have been eliminated. Others simply go unfilled. That means an employee may have absorbed responsibilities into their job that managers don’t even recognize. This insidious workplace phenomenon is something called job creep, a growing problem for both employers and employees.

There are 2 primary reasons why employees work long hours:

  1. Slow or no hiring. It should come as no surprise that many businesses are reluctant to hire.  Even when actively recruiting, companies are being very diligent in screening and selecting candidates. When positions remain vacant, incumbent workers are expected to pick up the slack.
  2. Padding retirement funds. The recession has not been kind to paychecks and pension plans.  Many workers want to work overtime to boost their retirement benefits, especially if payouts are based on their last two or three highest-producing years.

Job creep is not always voluntary. Some worker feel pressure to assume more responsibility or extra work shifts because of early retirements, layoffs, injuries, vacancies or vacations in their departments. Overworked employees don’t always work very well. Several studies also show that job performance falls precipitously after 10 consecutive hours on the job.

How prevalent is job creep? According to a recent Spherion Staffing survey, more than half of all employees have taken on new roles during the eco­nomic downturn.

More specifically, The Washington Post recently published a report about overworked and fatigued Metrorail workers. In two cases, an employee in the heavy equipment department worked 112 hours in one week — or 16-hour shifts for seven days in a row, according to the study. One manager in the track and structure division said his crew had worked the “last 22 weekends in a row.”

The same Spherion survey found that only 7% of employees received additional pay in return for expanded duties. Regardless of the cause, productivity often suffers which can cause employees to burn out or become dissatisfied with their jobs. Job creep can lead to fatigue, accidents, and mistakes.

This creep of job responsibility is not limited to the employee’s company. You might call this scenario passing the buck. When everyone cuts back, someone still has to the work. A growing problem is that suppliers, vendors, and client organizations have shrunk and your employee(s) may be assuming responsibilities for tasks formerly handled by another business in the supply chain.

Fatigue and mistakes are just the beginning of job creep problems for employees.  Job creep probably means many job ­descriptions are probably outdated. Peter Drucker once observed that the key to effective management is doing a number of simple things well. One of those simple things is having clear expectations. With job creep, the usual job description becomes an obsolete and cryptic outline of a position that perhaps once existed. How can an employee be coached and evaluated effectively without crystal clear expectations and responsibilities? And with an outdated description, holding an under-performing worker accountable could be trouble, particularly if disciplinary action or termination is necessary.

Even more threatening are important employment law implications, including potential effects on FMLA leave, ADA accommodations and Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) compliance.

Several federal laws rely on up-to-date, accurate job descriptions. Most notably, the ADA requires employers to specifically designate which job functions are essential and which are not. Job creep might force an employee to perform functions despite a serious health condition. Without a job description, employees may simply provide medical documentation exempting them from many of the new duties they have been assigned.

Additionally, the FLSA requires paying overtime to employees who are not exempt under the law. Shuffled job responsibilities may make employees who were previously exempt under the FLSA eligible for overtime. Don’t assume that adding non-management tasks to a manager’s plate won’t affect the manager’s exemption.

Think of job creep as another bubble, as real as the housing and tech bubbles. It is imperative that employee workloads be reviewed to determine if some workers are being asked to do more than is reasonable. Look for dips in productivity that coincides with increased job duties. Look at ways to spread the additional responsibilities over several workers. Examine ways of automating functions to make tasks less demanding.

If not, when the job creep bubble bursts, businesses may see a mass exodus of skilled workers out the door. At that point, any labor costs squeezed out of employees will evaporate and the genius of current management will seem really dumb.


Ira S Wolfe


  1. Daria Steigman November 28, 2011 at 4:44 pm -

    With clients (and when I ran my condo board), I always ask people what responsibilities they’re going to take away when they talk about adding new tasks or initiatives to their employees’ plates. Usually I get a blank stare — at least at first.

    “The genius of current management” in allowing and/or encouraging job creep is probably dumb already–but you’re right that the costs will come back to bite them once employees have options. Not to mention the whole pay classification issue once people figure it out.