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Heavy workload and time pressure

WEA Guideline no. 4.1.1 on heavy workload and time pressure

1. About the guidelines

1.1. What do the guidelines contain?

These WEA Guidelines describe the most important duties you have as an employer in your preventive work with heavy workload and time pressure, and what you can do to fulfil these duties.

You can take different approaches to prevention from those described in these guidelines, as long as you ensure that the work is planned, organised and carried out in a way that is fully compliant with health and safety in regard to high workload and time pressure.

1.2. Who are the guidelines relevant for?

The target group for these guidelines is primarily employers, supervisors, the occupational health and safety organisation (HSO), and other employees who work with occupational health and safety in the company. Within the company, the employer is the primary target group because it is the employer who is legally obliged to ensure that the work is fully compliant with health and safety.

High workload and time pressure may be present in any company and in any industry. Therefore, these guidelines are relevant for companies in all industries.

All employees in the company are covered by the rules on heavy workload and time pressure, regardless of the nature and duration of the employment relationship. The rules therefore also apply to e.g. project employees, temporary workers, trainees, and others more loosely connected with the company.

Note that supervisors are also included in the term "employees". Supervisors have a dual role. They manage and supervise work on behalf of the employer, and are also employees themselves.

1.3. The guidelines' approach to prevention

The guidelines are based on the principles that underlie all work to prevent health and safety issues.

a) Duties and roles of employers, supervisors and other employees

As an employer, you have overall responsibility by law for ensuring that the work is compliant with health and safety.

The Danish Working Environment Authority's guidelines describe what that duty entails for you as an employer in a specific area.

Supervisors and other employees also have a number of duties and roles. These are general duties and tasks and are therefore not described in the guidelines, but you can read more about them at at.dk/pligter.

b) Collaboration on health and safety

It is a requirement of health and safety legislation that you, as an employer, collaborate with your supervisors and other employees on health and safety work and the prevention of health and safety problems. If there are 10 or more employees in the company, the collaboration must take place in a HSO. Be aware of the rules for which employees are included, and that there are exceptions to the 10-employee rule. In some companies, collaboration on occupational health and safety is integrated into other forums, e.g., in municipalities and regions, where it takes place in the MED system.

The HSO has a number of tasks to do in the health and safety work. Read more about the HSO's tasks at at.dk/amo.

c) The principles of prevention

The prevention of heavy workload and time pressure must take the statutory principles of prevention into account. The purpose of the principles of prevention is to ensure that the prevention is effective.

According to the principles of prevention, you, as an employer, must, as far as possible, avoid heavy workloads and time pressures, which may involve a risk to the safety or health of employees. When there are heavy workloads and time pressure, you must identify and assess the heavy workloads and time pressures, and prevent risks to the health and safety of employees. Prevention must target the conditions at work that cause heavy workloads and time pressures. The causes can give an idea of what actions are needed, and where in the company they should be implemented. Prevention must also protect all employees from the risk, not just individual employees.

Find the principles of prevention in Appendix 1 to the Executive Order on Psychosocial Working Environment at at.dk/forebyggelsesprincipper.

d) Prevention is an ongoing process

As an employer, it is necessary that you continuously identify whether there are heavy workloads and time pressure in the company, because you have a duty to ensure that the work is compliant with health and safety at all times. If there are heavy workloads and time pressure, you must assess whether the risk to the health and safety of employees is effectively prevented and, if necessary, implement effective preventive measures. Finally, as an employer, you must ensure that effective supervision is conducted on an ongoing basis, to ensure that the work is carried out safely and that the measures taken are effective, see Figure 1.

In your preventive work, you can follow the processes used in the work with the statutory workplace assessment (WPA). Read more at at.dk/apv.

Figure 1 - Identify heavy workload and time pressure - Assess the risk to employees’ health and safety - Prevent the risk to employees’ health and safety - Effectively supervise the performance of work
Figure 1 - Identify heavy workload and time pressure - Assess the risk to employees’ health and safety - Prevent the risk to employees’ health and safety - Effectively supervise the performance of work.

Most important clauses

Executive Order on Collaboration on Health and Safety, Sec. 2

Executive Order on Psychosocial Working Environment, Sec. 6, and Appendix 1

Executive Order on the Performance of Work, Sec. 6 a - c

2. Definition, consequences and the duty to ensure that work is safe

2.1. What are heavy workload and time pressure?

The Executive Order on Psychosocial Working Environment defines heavy workload and time pressure as an imbalance between the work to be performed and the time available to perform. In order for there to be heavy workload and time pressure, the imbalance must cause employees to work

  • intensively, e.g. at a fast pace or without breaks for restitution, or
  • many working hours, which may affect the possibility of restitution.

This means that where there are heavy workloads and time pressure in a company, the employees have to work intensively or long hours to complete their work duties.

2.2. Health and safety implications for employees

Heavy workload and time pressure can put the health and safety of employees at risk. This is especially true if the heavy workload and time pressure persist for a longer period of time.

For example, heavy workload and time pressure can increase the risk of sleep problems, concentration difficulties, long-term stress, anxiety, depression and cardiovascular disease.

It can also increase the risk of work accidents. For example, trip and fall accidents, traffic accidents, accidents involving tools and machinery, or violence from e.g. citizens and customers.

2.3. Health and safety risks must be prevented

As an employer, you have a duty to ensure that the work is planned, organised and carried out in such a way that it is fully compliant with health and safety in the short and long term in regard to heavy workload and time pressure.

This means that heavy workload and time pressure must not compromise the health and safety of employees in the short or long term. It also means that, as an employer, you must take effective measures to prevent employees from getting sick or injured as a result of heavy workload and time pressure.

Most important clauses

Executive Order on Psychosocial Working Environment, Sec. 13 and 14

3. Identify and assess heavy workload and time pressure

Figure 2 - Identify and assess heavy workload and time pressure
Figure 2 - Identify and assess heavy workload and time pressure.

As an employer, you must continuously identify if there are heavy workloads and time pressure in your company. If there are heavy workloads and time pressure, you must assess whether the risk to the health and safety of your employees is effectively prevented.

In this work, it is relevant to involve employees because their experiences are an important source of knowledge about heavy workloads and time pressure in the company.

Identification and assessment can be done as part of both daily collaboration on task performance and as more comprehensive investigations into the psychosocial working environment. For example, as part of the WPA.

3.1. How do you identify heavy workload and time pressure?

As an employer, you can start by finding out if there are employees who work intensively or many working hours to complete their tasks.

Intensive work can be both physically and mentally intensive. Intensive work can manifest itself in fast-paced work, such as employees rushing from one task to another, tight deadlines and urgent tasks, employees not having time to prepare for e.g. meetings or instruction, or employees having to complete multiple tasks at the same time. The work can also be mentally intensive if, for example, it requires a high degree of attention and concentration or presence, or if the tasks are difficult or complex.

Many working hours can be apparent in frequent long working days, or often having to work outside of the normal or the agreed upon working hours. It can also be apparent in frequent impounding of vacation days or great amount of working overtime.

Heavy workloads and time pressure can affect individual employees, individual teams or departments within the company, or the entire company.

Signs of heavy workload and time pressure

There are a number of factors that can be signs of heavy workload and time pressure. They can help you spot heavy workloads and time pressure in your staff’s daily work. If any of the following factors occur, it is important to find out if they are signs of heavy workload and time pressure, or if they are about something else.

  • There are important tasks that do not get done.
  • There are important deadlines that are not being met.
  • The specified level of service or quality is not reached.
  • Mistakes are made at work.
  • There is criticism of the work performed from management or colleagues.
  • There are conflicts or collaboration issues within the company.
  • There is criticism or complaints about the work performed from citizens, relatives, customers or business partners.
  • There are conflicts with citizens, relatives, customers or business partners.
  • There are employees who at times do not have time to take breaks.
  • There are employees who at times work many hours.
  • There are work accidents or near-misses.
  • There is high sickness absence or high staff turnover.

For the individual employee, the following can be signs of a heavy workload and time pressure:

  • Concentration difficulties.
  • Memory problems.
  • Lack of overview.
  • Bad mood and increased irritability.
  • Feeling of professional inadequacy.
  • Tendency to isolate socially.
  • Lack of energy for activities outside of work.
  • Difficult to stop thinking about work outside of work.
  • Sleep problems.

3.2. How do you assess whether health and safety risks are effectively prevented?

The risk is not effectively prevented when an imbalance between the work to be performed and the time available to perform results in one or more of the following 3 situations:

Situation 1

There are employees who, for a longer period of time, work so intensively to complete their tasks that they don't have the opportunity for sufficient restitution during working hours.

As an employer, you must find out how much time of the day and week is taken up by the intensive work, and how long it has been going on. You then must assess whether employees have sufficient opportunity for restitution during the day. This could be as breaks and as variation in their work duties by alternating between intensive and less intensive tasks.

Situation 2

There are employees who, for a longer period of time, work so many hours to complete their tasks that they don't have the opportunity for sufficient restitution between workdays.

As an employer, you must find out how many hours your employees work per day and during the week, and how long this has been going on. Then you must assess whether the many working hours allow for sufficient restitution between workdays.

Situation 3

There are employees who work without the opportunity for sufficient restitution, or at such a fast pace that it could lead to work accidents.

As an employer, you must assess the risk of work accidents due to high workload and time pressure. There can be a risk of accidents because employees are working at a fast pace and because employees are tired from insufficient restitution. The risk can arise e.g. because potentially hazardous situations are overlooked, or because employees do not have time to take important steps to prevent work accidents.

The main assessment is whether the prevention ensures that employees are not at risk of falling into one or more of these 3 situations.

What is restitution and why is it important?

Restitution is when employees rebuild their strength and energy, both physically and mentally.

Restitution is about taking breaks and rest periods to unwind physically and mentally, both during the workday and between workdays. Restitution is also about planning and organising work to allow for variation between intensive and less intensive tasks.

Humans are not designed to be in constant activity. We need to alternate between activity and rest. Constant activity takes a toll on your health and ability to perform and deliver quality work.

Employees’ restitution at and outside of work has an impact on whether heavy workloads and time pressure pose a risk to employees’ safety or health.

What constitutes sufficient restitution depends on the type of work performed and the needs of the individual employee.

Influences that may increase the risks to safety or health

As an employer, you must assess whether there are influences in the working environment that could increase the risks from heavy workload and time pressure. These influences are highly dependent on the type of work employees do. This can be both influences in the physical working environment, such as noise, and influences in the psychological working environment. For example, stringent demands on attention and concentration, high level of work difficulty, high level of responsibility for other people or values, high emotional demands when working with people, or unclear and conflicting demands at work.

The risks from heavy workloads and time pressures could be increased if, for example, employees have to work with high levels of attention and concentration. The risk can be further increased if employees work in very noisy environments that make concentration difficult, or if they have a job where mistakes can have major consequences for other people or values.

Heavy workloads and time pressures can also be particularly stressful if employees also have high emotional demands when working with people. This type of work requires presence of mind in the contact with the people being worked with.

Consideration of employees’ preconditions

When you, as an employer, assess whether the risk to employees' health and safety from heavy workloads and time pressure is effectively prevented, you must always assess whether there is a need to consider the individual employee's ability to perform their work in a safe manner. It could be a matter of the employee's age, insight or ability to work. Special consideration may need to be given to young people and new employees, for example, if they do not have so much experience with the work. Special consideration may also need to be given to seniors and employees with physical or mental disabilities.

Protection of particularly sensitive risk groups

You must also assess whether there are employees who need special protection from the risks associated with heavy workload and time pressure because the risks are particularly severe for them. For example, pregnant women who may be particularly sensitive to intensive work or long working days.

Most important clauses

Executive Order on Psychosocial Working Environment, Sec. 8, 13, 14 and 15

4. Prevent risks to employees’ health and safety

Figure 3 - Prevent risks to employees’ health and safety
Figure 3 - Prevent risks to employees’ health and safety.

As an employer, you have a duty to take preventive measures when necessary to ensure that the work is health and safety compliant in regard to heavy workload and time pressure. These measures must be effective, so that employees don't fall ill or get injured as a result of heavy workloads and time pressure.

You must plan and implement preventive measures in collaboration with your employees and HSO. The latter only applies to companies with 10 or more employees.

If the necessary expertise is not available within the company to prevent risks from heavy workload and time pressure, you, as an employer, must seek external expertise to ensure that the work is completely safe.

4.1. The most important preventive measures

It is particularly important that you, as an employer, focus on the following measures to prevent the risks from heavy workloads and time pressure:

  • Planning and organisation of work, to ensure that the work is safe.
  • Sufficient and appropriate training and instruction on how to carry out the work.
  • Support from management and colleagues.
  • Influence in relation to the work that needs to be carried out.
  • Consideration of employees’ preconditions.
  • Protection of particularly sensitive risk groups.

4.2. Planning and organisation of work, to ensure that the work is safe

Planning and organisation of work is crucial to the successful prevention of the risks from heavy workload and time pressure. Below are some examples of how you can work with your employees to plan and organise the work.

  • You can create a clear division of responsibilities and workflows, e.g. between professional groups, job functions, teams and departments.
  • You can prioritise tasks by, for example, deciding if there are tasks or deadlines that can be postponed or need not be prioritised.
  • You can make changes to the distribution of tasks between employees if some employees are under more strain than others, both in terms of task volume and task intensity.
  • You can increase predictability so employees can better plan their work, for example, by giving employees plenty of notice of new tasks and changes to work schedules.
  • You can agree to expectations of the service or quality level within the company, so everyone knows what service or product they must deliver.
  • Management can agree to expectations with citizens, relatives, customers and business partners, so they know what service or product they can expect.
  • You can have clear procedures in place for how to handle situations such as absences, peak workloads or other emergencies.
  • You can consider how to plan and organise the daily work when implementing reorganisations and changes, or introducing new technology.
  • You can make sure that the production equipment, IT systems and other tools that employees must use support their work.
  • You can support a work culture that allows for breaks for restitution during the day.
  • You can clarify how and when you can contact each other about work outside of working hours, for example, through clear guidelines.

 

Remember to follow up on whether the measures are implemented as planned.

Example: Agreement of expectations became a tool to manage heavy workload and time pressure 

In one workplace, they focused on creating a clear level of service and quality to handle situations with heavy workloads and time pressure. They found that their customers had high and very different expectations of the workplace's services. The management therefore worked on agreeing levels of service and quality with employees, while clearly communicating this to their customers. There were regular meetings between management and employees, where they discussed requirements and expectations for performance.

The work showed that it was beneficial to have the same expectations of service, both internally in the workplace and with customers. This created greater clarity on what employees should and should not deliver.

Example: Long-term sick leave required new prioritisation of tasks 

An employee in a small team went on long-term sick leave. Among other things, he was responsible for a major assignment that had a deadline 3 months later.

Management decided that a colleague should assume responsibility for the large task. The colleague wanted to take over the task, but it was a big additional job on top of the ones she already had. At the same time, it would affect the other colleagues in the team because she could neither take on new tasks nor spar and help other colleagues. In addition, the sick colleague's other tasks also had to be completed.

The manager worked with the team to prioritise the team's tasks. What needed to be done here and now, what could wait until the large task was completed, and what could wait until the colleague on sick leave was back? They agreed that the manager would monitor tasks and resources in the team by attending their bi-weekly team meetings for the following quarter. The manager would also pay special attention to the colleague who had taken over the large task.

Example: Dialogue led to better break culture

A health and safety group focused on restitution and breaks in their workplace. The health and safety group made use of the BFA Welfare and Public Administration's dialogue cards on break culture. The cards helped to start a good dialogue and exchange of experiences. They were used in local meetings, where employees, among other things, talked about which breaks were important for good work performance. A coordinator from each area relayed the ideas to the health and safety group, who were responsible for following up.

Working with breaks helped management and employees talk about what makes a good break, and that it is not the same for everyone. Based on the health and safety group's findings, the workplace conducted small experiments with different types of breaks.

4.3. Sufficient and appropriate training and instruction on how to carry out the work

As an employer, you have a duty to ensure that each employee receives sufficient and appropriate training and instruction on how to carry out their work in a health and safety compliant manner in regard to heavy workload and time pressure. Training and instruction are therefore key preventive measures.

You must pay special attention to training and instruction when you bring new employees into the company, including project employees, temporary workers, trainees and others more loosely connected with the company. You must also pay special attention to providing training and instruction when changes are made to employees' work. This could e.g. be when employees are given new tasks, when new teams are formed, or when there are changes in the way the work is carried out. This could be due to new procedures, new legislation, new work equipment, or the introduction of new technology.

Training and instruction must be repeated regularly if necessary.

In your training and instruction, you as an employer can benefit from focusing on:

  • What tasks employees must complete.
  • How tasks can be completed, and with whom.
  • What requirements and expectations there are for the scope and quality of the task, and how much time employees should spend on the task.
  • What tasks employees must prioritise when the time available is insufficient.
  • What opportunities there are for support and sparring from management and colleagues for specific tasks.
  • What opportunities there are for influence at work, and what responsibilities and powers employees have.
  • Employees are equipped with the right competences to carry out their specific tasks.

Read more about training and instruction in the WEA Guidelines "Training, Instruction and Supervision of Work".

4.4. Support from management and colleagues

Support from management and colleagues is an important measure to successfully prevent the risk to employees’ health and safety from high workloads and time pressure. Support at work from management and colleagues helps employees to cope with the demands of the job. You and your employees can focus on the following, for example, to ensure the necessary support at work:

  • Employees receive help and support from management and colleagues to prioritise, plan and complete specific tasks.
  • Management and employees agree on expectations in terms of task volume and service or quality level.
  • Employees are given constructive feedback and recognition on how tasks are completed in relation to the demands and expectations of the job. This can be from both management and colleagues.
  • Management supports employees' ability to collaborate, spar and complete tasks collectively, where relevant.
  • Management and employees establish a good dialogue, where employees can confidently raise concerns about heavy workload and time pressure, and make suggestions for solutions.

Example: Induction programme gave new employees a better start

The management of one workplace had introduced an induction programme for new employees. During the course, the new employees were instructed on the practicalities, IT systems, procedures, colleagues and business partners. Part of the induction process was a mentoring scheme, where new employees were assigned an experienced colleague who was responsible for training and giving them feedback on specific problems.

As a result of the induction process, new employees quickly established a good network in the workplace, making it easier for them to ask and get help with difficult tasks. It also meant they could contribute to the task at hand more quickly.

4.5. Influence in relation to the work that needs to be carried out                         

Influence at work is an important measure to successfully prevent the risk to employees’ health and safety from high workloads and time pressure. Influence is about having the ability to make an impact on work, and helps employees manage the demands of their work. As an employer, you can ensure that your employees influence their work, for example by:

  • Giving them the opportunity to influence working methods and workloads, the order of their tasks and the pace of their work.
  • Involving them in the planning and organisation of work and the distribution of work tasks, e.g. regular prioritisation meetings and involvement in shift scheduling.
  • Holding regular meetings to discuss the volume of tasks, requirements for solutions and the time available to complete the tasks.
  • Organising work so that employees have a say in how and when they carry out their tasks, e.g. through team or project organisation.
  • Involving employees in planning, implementing and embedding change.

Example: Working with different preventive measures produced coherent action

A large workplace had been experiencing an increase in demand for their products for some time. The situation led to employees being busy for a long time. Management therefore decided, in collaboration with the health and safety organisation, to initiate a number of preventive measures.

This included an analysis of working procedures and the production flow. On this basis, regular whiteboard meetings were introduced in the departments, where tasks and progress were discussed, and prioritisation was changed when necessary.  Time was also set aside for closer dialogue between the personnel manager and the individual employee, where they could prioritise tasks and agree on expectations. Finally, opportunities were created for collegial and professional sparring between colleagues at the regular whiteboard meetings.

4.6. Consideration of employees’ preconditions

In your work to prevent risks to employees' health and safety due to high workloads and time pressure, you have a duty, as an employer, to take account of the individual employee's ability to carry out their work in a safe manner.

For example, if the employee does not have so much work experience, then training and instruction or further support from management and colleagues may be needed for some time.

4.7. Protection of particularly sensitive risk groups

You also have a duty to protect particularly sensitive employees from the risks associated with heavy workloads and time pressure that are particularly severe for them.

There may be pregnant women, for example. As they can be particularly sensitive, preventive measures may need to be taken at an earlier stage, or slightly different measures may be needed to protect these employees. These could be extra breaks during working hours, or adjusting their work tasks.

Most important clauses

Executive Order on Psychosocial Working Environment, Sec. 6, 8, 9, 10, 13 and 15

Working Environment Act, Sec. 5

5. Effectively supervise the safe performance of work

Figure 4  Effectively supervise the performance of work.
Figure 4 - Effectively supervise the performance of work.

As an employer, you have a duty to conduct effective supervision to ensure that the performance of work is health and safety compliant in regard to heavy workload and time pressure. Your supervisors must ensure that the measures put in place to promote health and safety are working as intended.

In order to be effective, it is necessary that the supervision is ongoing, to ensure that employees are actually carrying out their work in a way that prevents them from becoming ill or being injured as a result of heavy workload and time pressure. This is necessary because heavy workloads and time pressures may vary from employee to employee and from department to department, as well as over time. The frequency and extent of the supervision depends on the nature of the work, the preconditions of the employees, and the occurrence of heavy workloads and time pressures.

The supervision must include:

  • How employees carry out the work, and whether they follow the training and instruction they have been given to be able to carry out the work in a manner that is health and safety compliant.
  • Whether the preventive measures are effective in regard to heavy workloads and time pressure.
  • Whether the training and instruction has been sufficient and appropriate.
  • Whether employees adjust the way they do their work when they are made aware that, for example, they are not doing the work in an appropriate manner.

Read more about supervision in the WEA Guidelines "Training, Instruction and Supervision of Work".    

If the supervision shows that there are heavy workloads and time pressure, you, as an employer, must assess whether the risk to the health and safety of your employees is effectively prevented, see Chapter 3. If necessary, you must take preventive measures, see Chapter 4.

Effective supervision can also provide valuable input for the annual health and safety discussion, and the work with the WPA.

Most important clause

Executive Order on Psychosocial Working Environment, Sec. 11

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