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Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It – Erin L. Kelly, Phyllis Moen

19th October 2020
overload book cover


Overload is a book about workplace reform. The authors hope to initiate a reflection on the current work practice and start a discussion on better ways of working in all kinds of jobs and in all industries through this book. I am interested to learn more about how to make jobs better.


Erin L. Kelly is a Sloan Distinguished Professor of Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management and CoDirector in the Institute for Work and Employment Research. She is also Faculty Director of the the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative. She is an organizational sociologist who has studied the adoption, implementation, and consequences of anti-discrimination and “family-friendly” policies in US workplaces. Her early research contributed to the understanding of which diversity policies and programs seem to change organizations and which are primarily “window dressing”.

Phyllis Moen holds the McKnight Presidential Chair in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. She studies occupational careers, gender, families, and well-being over the life course, including the frequently obsolete social, cultural, and policy ecologies in which lives play out. 


Overload has 8 chapters which are divided into 3 parts.

Part I is The Problem. It contains the first 3 chapters which are Old Rules, New Realities, Overload, and How We Got Here and Why It Matters.

Part II is A Potential Solution. There are 3 chapters here. These are Dual-Agenda Work Redesign: Understanding STAR at TOMO, The Business Impacts of Work Redesign, and Work Redesign Benefits for Health, Well-Being, and Personal Life.

Part III is Looking Ahead and contains the last 2 chapters. The chapters are Two Steps Forward, One Step Back, and Creating Sane and Sustainable Jobs.

There are 3 appendixes at the end of this book. Appendix 1 is Overview of Software Development Process and Jobs. Appendix 2 is Methodology and Reflections on Corporate Fieldwork. The last appendix is Ideas for Action.


Overload is a discussion on the authors’ research which involves work redesign in a large information technology company. It is an analysis based on the results of trying to change the informal norms and formal rules regarding when, where, and how work is done.

First, what is overload? In simple words, overload is the feeling of having too much to do in too little time. The authors define overload as the sense that work demands are unrealistic, given limited resources. I think most workers would have felt overload at least once in a while in the current environment.

The authors opine that work intensification and overload is produced by management decisions and new technologies. Nonetheless, technologies do not disrupt or transform organizational culture and contribute to overload on their own. If these technologies are properly used, they could be used in ways that work for the employees and employers, rather than just creating more demands and pressure.

Why do we feel overload? The experience of overload actually depends on the social norms regarding when, where, and how work is accomplished and how workers are evaluated, not only how much work is assigned or how many hours are worked.

Thus, the authors introduce a dual-agenda work redesign known as STAR (Support. Transform. Achieve. Results). This work reform aims to construct a new normal, to reconsider and revamp what is expected and what is done in a given team. In short, they want to change the workplace, not the worker.

How does the programme work? STAR aims to increase employees’ control over when and where they do their work; promote social support for personal and family lives; manage high work demands by focusing on results rather than time spent in the office or online and by reducing low-value work whenever possible. It involves criticizing the assumptions that long hours, availability, and instant responsiveness necessarily yield good work.

The STAR initiative is different from the flexibility as accommodation practice where it places the decision at the hands of the employees, rather than the managers.

What were the results of this initiative? The authors found positive changes in burnout, job satisfaction, desire to leave the workplace, health and well-being of workers and their family and personal lives. Nonetheless, it was not clear whether improvement was seen in the productivity and profitability of the company. Overall, there was no negative results being found in the study.

The authors acknowledge that change is hard. They offer some suggestions for employers, managers and employees to effect work redesign. For example, middle managers’ anxiety can stall changes but can be countered by the combination of top management support and bottom-up enthusiasm from employees.

Appendix 3 contains recommendations for an employee or a manager who would like to do things differently but do not have the authority to launch a formal work design initiative.

Overall, I think that I have learned a few things about work redesign from this book. However, this book feels like the discussion part of a research paper. There are a lot of references that the authors use. If you are interested to know more, all the STAR training material can be found on the Work, Family & Health Network website (Link).


  1. But creativity and innovativeness are simply incompatible with burnout and exhaustion.
  2. Nobody ever gets credit for fixing problems that never happened.


2 out of 3 stars

Interested in Overload?

You may get the book from Kinokuniya Malaysia through the link below*.

Get the book here

*Disclosure: The above link is Involve Asia affiliate link. Thus, I may earn a small commission when you purchase the book through this link.

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