Tick Tock Tick Tock

Tick Tock Tick Tock

A look at the impact of time pressure on work quality

the impact of time pressure on work quality
Our struggle to manage time has troubling ethical implications. However, research shows that lacking free time or feeling consistent time pressure can significantly impact how we interact with other people — and how we perform at work. When we are too busy, we pay less attention to the world around us and are less likely to fully engage in our tasks at the office.

A classic study by John Darley and Daniel Batson in 1973 highlights the impact of time pressure on our willingness to help. Researchers invited participants at a theological college to deliver a three-to five minute impromptu talk to an audience. In preparation for the talk, participants received the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan — which emphasizes helping those in need — to potentially include in their lecture. Some participants were told they had lots of time to get to the lecture hall while others were informed they were already five minutes late and should rush over immediately.

The research team strategically placed an accomplice in the path of the presenter. This actor was instructed to act in obvious distress and to intensify this behaviour as the presenter approached. The researchers were keenly interested to see how often the study participants would help this “person in need.”

The results were fascinating — the pressure of time was the only factor that affected the helping responses of the participants. Only 10% of those who were told they were late for their talk stopped to help, while 63% of participants who were given more time actually stopped to help. In fact, some of the “late” participants literally stepped over the “victim” to continue on their way to deliver their talk on the Good Samaritan.

The researchers concluded that “ethics become a luxury” as the pace of our lives speeds up. Simply, we believe we can sacrifice doing the right thing because we do not have the time to think of others. Although this study is almost 40 years old, it remains relevant as we continue to race through our days at ever-increasing speeds.

Similarly, a 2013 study in the British Medical Journal demonstrates the impact of time pressure on our work quality. In this case, researchers presented a group of General Practitioners (GPs) with two different clinical scenarios. In the first instance, there was no time pressure while in the second, a sense of urgency was introduced.

Shockingly, with the time-pressured group there were significant differences in the quality of care provided to the patients.
Specifically, they:

  • tended to ask significantly fewer questions about the presenting symptoms
  • did not thoroughly examine the patient
  • provided less advice about lifestyle
  • were significantly less likely to adhere to the guidelines for patient care/analysis

Managing Time Pressures within a Team

Time pressure is not going away any time soon — so what can you do to effectively manage this shortage?

  1. Create an open dialogue

    Leaders may do well to consult with their teams about how much time is reasonably required to complete their various projects. Facilitating an open dialogue brings clarity and a sense of calmness.

  2. Plan

    Clarify project timelines and ensure employees are able to meet them. These discussions can allow team members to focus on the work at hand, instead of being distracted and haunted by unreasonable looming deadlines.

  3. Hold impromptu meetings

    Invariably, projects will emerge with urgent and immovable timelines. In these cases, sit with your team and talk about how to optimize the time available. Discuss strategies to be more efficient. Think about ways to share the load. This can help reduce the anxiety associated with the elevated pressure.

  4. After ramping up, provide respite

    If additional work is required to complete a time-sensitive project, ensure people know the situation is temporary. Employees may feel overwhelmed if they believe that high-pressure situations will continue for long periods of time or become a standard practice within the organization. This type of pace is not sustainable and leaders need to reassure their people that this too shall pass.

  5. Ensure you control time and it does not control you

    Operating within a time-pressured environment has become the norm. We need to identify ways that we control our time, rather than letting our time control us. Our engagement and performance will benefit from time management practices, particularly initiating conversations to reframe the time constraints and openly discussing ways to manage exceptional circumstances.

    Make time your friend, rather than your enemy. Getting caught up in the race around you can interfere with the core values and passions that drive you. Your professional behaviour should reflect your personal principles and time pressure should not change that. Maintaining your values and principles in the face of imminent deadlines can be a challenge, but it is worth it — every time.


Craig Dowden Ph.D., focuses on bridging the gap between what science knows and what business does. His firm specializes in the custom design and delivery of evidence-based leadership development programs and services. His main areas of practice include executive and career coaching, workshop facilitation/keynote speaking, employee engagement, and psychometric/personality assessment including 360-feedback.

Originally published in volume 18 issue 2 of Your Workplace magazine.

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