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Miracle Workers Available 24-7, and Other Toxic Expectations

Personal Perspective: Unrealistic expectations can make workers feel burnt out.

Source: Wuoabar MomTackse 063/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wuoabar MomTackse 063/Wikimedia Commons

In centuries gone by, in factories, farms, and other workplaces across England, most workers had few rights. Their employers could make them work seven days a week, giving them few breaks during the day and putting them in danger of injury or death from machinery. Society has come a long way since then, but there are worrying signs that some organizations are starting to regress.

The television program, The Apprentice, captured this modern approach to treating workers as dispensable objects which can be shouted at, criticized, problematized, and judged according to their dedication, tenacity, and various other clichés. These harmful approaches exist in many organizations, but what is the impact on employees' mental health?

Toxic expectations in some workplaces

Some organizations create a culture that expects employees to work excessively and beyond their paid hours, creating the risk of burnout. A school in Sheffield recently made headlines in the UK because of its expectations for a new deputy school teacher, worded in its advertisement for the job vacancy. The Guardian newspaper [1] reported that some people thought that the school's job advert was a spoof because it had unreasonable expectations, such as expecting the deputy head teacher to work from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and then in the evenings, Saturday mornings, and holidays. The candidate would hardly have any time left to eat or rest.

The job advert stated that the school wanted someone with "high energy and sacrifice," that the school "cannot carry anyone," and that it wanted the deputy headteacher to "stay until the job is done." [1] The job advert added that the job "may dominate your life on occasions," notwithstanding the fact that, in the UK, there are laws limiting the number of hours that employees can work a week. Such organizations tend to expect workers to be available all day and all week without paying them anything for the overtime hours.

When organizations want miracle workers

Some organizations expect workers to get in, work wonders, and do some sort of miraculous feat that makes them worthy of employment when, in reality, many jobs do not need—or have the opportunity—for that. It sets an expectation under which workers are likely to feel continually deficient and unworthy, damaging their self-esteem. The Guardian went on to report that this school wanted someone who would "lead with bravery" and, further, "We want someone who rolls up their sleeves, a doer and a grafter. Not just a visionary, but someone who also walks the hard yards." The idea of someone being recruited to not just do their job but do more for free during their personal time sets unrealistic expectations, which can be difficult to meet without burning out.

The impact on workers' mental health

The news story led to an outcry from teachers [1], many of whom have been on strike because of pay and working conditions, and highlighted problems in UK primary and secondary education which have contributed to significant numbers of teachers becoming burnt out and leaving the profession.

The irony is that when organizations set unrealistic expectations for workers, workers lose valuable mental time trying to meet those expectations, which can actually lead to reduced overall productivity on the "bread and butter" aspects of their job. For instance, if someone's job is to make sales and provide customer service, an organization that sets unrealistic expectations about how many sales an employee should achieve will likely find that customer service suffers while employees chase unachievable sales quantities of sales. This might actually lead to declines in the organization's profit because clients refuse to engage in repeat business. Unrealistic expectations can be self-defeating.

Other signs of a toxic organization include:

  • Expecting you to be "always on" emails, messages, and phone calls, even when you are not being paid (e.g., evenings and weekends).
  • Expecting you to work miracles to achieve things that are unachievable in the amount of time available.
  • Judging you harshly, even when you have done a good job.
  • Creating a culture in which you are told openly or tacitly that you are not "good enough" to work there.
  • Micromanaging you, making you feel incapable of working independently, and damaging your sense of self-efficacy.

It is better for organizations to have realistic expectations of employees and to remember that creating a culture that might lead to burnout is counterproductive because it could lead to employees quitting their jobs. That can be an expensive lesson for organizations, which then have to spend more money recruiting and training new staff, and it could lead to the organization's productivity and profits nosediving because of staff shortages and reduced morale.


[1] The Guardian newspaper (2023). Sheffield school criticized for saying job applicants must be ‘wedded’ to role. February 20th.

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