In Brief

When deadlines are tight and time-pressure is high, managers can help reduce employee fatigue by giving them control over the way they work, suggests new research published in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (Vol. 12, No. 1). Allowing people to complete assigned tasks in any order they choose also reduces errors and increases productivity, found the researchers.

In a series of studies, researchers asked 20 secretaries and 52 graduate students to tackle a mound of simulated office work for two hours. Participants were randomly assigned to a "high-control" or "low-control" group. Both groups completed a list of assignments. Some tasks were labeled high priority-such as entering addresses into a spreadsheet. Others were low priority-checking a train schedule for an office manager's trip to London, for instance.

Members of the high-control group could spend any amount of time on the tasks and complete them in any order. In contrast, researchers yoked each low-control group member to a high-control participant, and required the low-control participant to perform tasks in the same order and spend the same amount of time on each task as his or her high-control partner.

Participants who had control over their schedule reported less fatigue than the low-control group at the end of the two-hour period. And while both groups performed equally well on the high priority tasks, the low-control group committed more errors on the low priority tasks. That finding suggests that tired participants were sure to protect important work from the effects of fatigue, but the less important work suffered as a result, says lead author Robert Hockey, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Sheffield, in England.

While scheduling one's work may seem like an additional chore, the rewards outweigh the mental costs of making such decisions, Hockey says.

"If you have control over the work flow, you can choose the task to fit your mood or cognitive state," says Hockey. "Sometimes it is a good time for writing poetry and sometimes you'd rather do data entry."

-S. Dingfelder