Most work today is done in teams where employees collaborate, discuss new ideas, and share responsibilities for specific goals. While this leads to a lot of good – like greater productivity and performance – teamwork can also be demanding and cause a lot of frustration. There are coordination costs to managing teams, as well as interpersonal conflicts that put excessive pressure on workers.

Management-by-stress theory sees teamwork as being potentially harmful to employee well-being. The premise is that stress comes mostly from managers’ effort to drive performance and the pressure that they put on employees. Managers expect work teams to brainstorm new ideas, manage multiple tasks and tight deadlines, and meet regularly to accomplish specific goals. While this can improve performance at least in the short term, it pushes employees to work too hard, leading to increased stress levels and poor well-being eventually. Surprisingly, there is not enough evidence to show that teamwork is a potential source of stress for workers. Often, the link between teamwork and work pressure is considered too complex to evaluate, and stress is generally dismissed as a by-product of any job. So, I decided to research whether teamwork is good or bad for employee well-being. The resulting study confirmed that teamwork improves the overall performance of an organization, but also leads to stress and feelings of anxiety among employees.

I analysed data from 664 face-to-face structured interviews conducted with managers from British workplaces where all employees worked in formally designated teams. The managers were asked to assess the way that teamwork operates among employees at the workplace, including: the extent to which team members depend on each other to do their job, and whether team members jointly decide on how the work is to be done. The managers also assessed whether their workplace fared better on key performance areas such as labour productivity, financial performance, and the quality of product or service compared to other workplaces in the same industry. I also analysed survey data from a random selection of five to 20 employees in each workplace where management interviews were conducted. The survey asked employees to report on their levels of commitment to the organisation, the amount of pressure experienced at work, and how much of the time they felt tense, worried or anxious due to work.

I found evidence that teamwork can affect organisational performance and employee well-being differently. On one hand, there was a positive relationship between teamwork and organisational performance, which was partly explained by employees’ sense of commitment towards the organisation. Specifically, in workplaces where employees relied on each other to do their work, their levels of organisational commitment increased, leading to greater productivity and financial performance. On the other hand, I found strong evidence linking teamwork to increased job demands, which caused feelings of anxiety at work. The more employees felt that their teammates relied on them to do the work, the more they felt stressed and anxious about the job.

What do these results tell us? At best, they confirm that work teams are discrete units of performance for organisations. Managers invest a lot of time and effort in advocating teamwork because it helps in achieving positive results; yet, they do so ultimately to boost performance, not necessarily to improve employee well-being. The caveat, of course, is that this could have counter-productive effects. If employees feel that the demands from teamwork are beyond their coping limits, it will take a physical and mental toll on employee well-being and inevitably outweigh any performance gains.

The study also made an important discovery regarding the effects of teamwork on well-being: that employees’ sense of organisational commitment may offset, at least partially, some adverse effects of stress caused by teamwork. That is to say, the more employees felt committed to the organisation, the more likely they were to cope with the demands of working in teams. This is true because committed workers are generally more engaged with work, and perhaps, even more likely to make better use of their skills.

In all, this study helps us to understand the potential ‘dark side’ of teamwork. We often speak about teamwork in pro-bias tones; but surely, this research has raised concerns that should give us pause. When viewed primarily from a performance standpoint, teamwork is associated with coordinated effort, productivity, and better performance. However, once we consider the negative consequences of teamwork, we see that the health and well-being of employees are placed at risk.

The key message for managers is to embrace a more balanced team-management approach that accounts for possible trade-offs between organisational performance and employee well-being. Managers should be aware that teamwork can be beneficial if employees have the right skills and resources to do their job. This entails providing access to training and learning opportunities to employees, setting realistic performance targets, allowing employees to have input into decisions about their roles, and promoting an inclusive working environment. Without these, work pressure will rise to unhealthy levels and well-being will deteriorate.

Furthermore, managers should openly show their support towards employees. First, when delegating work, clarify which task has higher priority and perhaps discuss its priority with the team. Second, highlight possible areas of concern – like time constraints, strict deadlines or any other issues that may come up. Third, give clear feedback on employees’ performance and reward good effort commensurately. If done properly, employees will be happier, and the benefits of teamwork will be more sustainable.

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Chidiebere Ogbonnaya (better known as Chidi) is a senior lecturer in organisational behaviour/human resource management at the University of Sussex Business School. He was previously a lecturer at Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia, and the Eastern ARC research fellow in quantitative social science.  Chidi has been involved in the Work, Learning and Well-being evidence programme, part of the Economic and Social Research Council-funded What Works Centre for Well-being. The programme brings together the best evidence on what works to improve the well-being of people, workplaces, and communities across Britain. He is interested in collaborating with academics and industry experts in employment relations, job quality, and well-being, and would like to establish a mutually supportive network of human resource management researchers and practitioners.