Sub-theme 21: Overwork, Identity and the Autonomy/Control Paradox in Professional Organizations

Blagoy Blagoev
Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany
Laura Empson
Cass Business School, City, University of London, United Kingdom
Renate Ortlieb
University of Graz, Austria

Call for Papers

This sub-theme invites researchers who study the relationship between identity, autonomy, and overwork in professional service organizations. Professionals have traditionally been theorized as enjoying higher levels of autonomy regarding the where, when and how of work (e.g. Engel, 1970; Sandberg & Pinnington, 2009). Yet, research also reveals that most professional workplaces are characterized by a persistent, autonomy-reducing regime of excessive working hours (60–120 hours/week) and escalating availability to clients and superiors (e.g. Lupu & Empson, 2015; Mazmanian et al., 2013; Michel, 2011). Even when firms try to alleviate extra-long hours regimes by promoting work-life balance and flexible work arrangements, overwork usually persists (e.g. Kärreman & Alvesson, 2009; Kellogg, 2011; Reid, 2015).
There are many drivers underlying overwork in professional contexts. For one thing, professionals are typically confronted with a highly unpredictable workflow and are expected to respond to surprising and unexpected events at all times (e.g. Perlow, 2012; Wajcman, 2014). Yet, even more importantly, the “totalizing” nature of professional work has been shown to have a significant impact on shaping professionals’ identities so that they become “willing slaves” to the organizations they work for, and sometimes own (e.g. Bunting, 2005). Most professional cultures implicitly rely on the normative myth of an “ideal worker”, i.e. someone who always prioritizes work, minimizes obligations outside it, and displays loyalty and commitment through long working hours and constant availability (Dumas & Sanchez-Burks, 2015; Reid, 2015). Arguably, many professionals tend to “hyper”-identify with this professional myth, even up to the extent of becoming “corportate clones” (Covaleski et al., 1998), unable to recognize how work takes over their lives (Michel, 2011; 2014).
Professional service organizations themselves actively promote such hyper-identification by intentionally selecting “insecure overacheivers” and fostering a work environment marked by competition for scarce promotion opportunities (Alvesson, 2001; Empson, 2017; Galanter & Palay, 1990; Michel, 2007) and engaging forms of normative and peer control that fuel long working hours and overwork (Costas & Grey, 2014; Kärreman & Alvesson, 2004; Muhr et al., 2012). Such control mechanisms rely on more distributed and unobtrusive forms of power that make them difficult to recognize and resist (Ekman, 2013; Kärreman & Alvesson, 2009). Many practices that belong to the standard repertoire of human resource management powerfully contribute to constituting professionals as productive subjects in a Foucauldian sense (Townley, 1994). Examples include time keeping (Anderson-Gough et al., 2001; Coffey, 1994), socialization procedures (Michel, 2007) and management by objectives (Covaleski et al., 1998). More recently, studies have demonstrated how organizations also employ less visible, emobodied forms of control which are experienced as self-chosen by professionals (Mazmanian et al., 2013; Michel, 2011). In such a context, professionals internalise their firms’ disciplinary mechanisms, engaging in self-monitoring and self-regulating behaviour that conforms to their organizations’ goals, whilst believing themselves to be acting autonomously.
This sub-theme seeks to advance current knowledge of this totalizing nature of professional work by more explicitly focusing on the themes of identity, overwork, and the autonomy/control paradox in professional service organizations. More specifically, we argue that, whereas the phenomenon of the autonomy/control paradox in professional service firms has been identified, the literature is still vague as to how and why professionals – who are highly educated, skilled, and individualistic – would be so easily ‘culturally doped’ (Alvesson & Willmott, 1996) into perceiving themselves as autonomous if in fact they are not (Robertson & Swan, 2003). We believe that much can be gained from problematizing how the totalizing nature of professional work is constructed and explicitly addressing the processes and mechanisms that sustain and fuel excessive working hours in professional service organizations. In particular, we want to extend previous emphasis on organizational control and identification, by also exploring how professionals’ bodies (Costas et al., 2016; Michel, 2011), reified occupational identities (Ashcraft, 2013), and the use of communication technologies (Mazmanian, 2012; Wajcman, 2014), among others, are also entangled in reproducing the totalizing nature of professional work.
The sub-theme particularly invites empirical and theoretical papers that focus on one or more of the following questions:

  • How have expectations surrounding the “ideal worker” myth and the totalizing nature of professional work emerged and been perpetuated historically?

  • How do professions develop an occupational identity – i.e. the shared, socially constructed and evolving character of work – that relies on the “ideal worker myth”? To what extent is this widespread or merely exacerbated by elite professional organizations?

  • Is the “myth” exaggerated, part of a process of “mutual seduction” among professionals, to glamourize and valorize their work?

  • How do concrete human resource management practices contribute to the totalizing nature of professional work? How can they change regimes of excessive working hours in professional contexts?

  • How are individuals’ bodies entangled in the continuous (re-)production of the totalizing nature of professional work?

  • What is the relationship between the totalizing nature of professional work, on the one hand, and individual agency, on the other, in particular when individuals do not conform to and/or resist regimes of excessive working hours? How is resistance manifested and/or suppressed in such a context?

  • What kinds of working time regimes can foster more humanly sustainable forms of professional work? How are new model professional organizations challenging cultures of overwork in the professional sector?

  • What are the potential ethical consequences of the totalizing nature of professional work? When professionalism is defined in terms of total dedication to the client, what becomes of the professional’s traditional role as an ethical gatekeeper?



  • Alvesson, M. (2001): “Knowledge Work: Ambiguity, Image and Identity.” Human Relations, 54, 863–886.
  • Alvesson, M., & Willmott, H. (1996): Marking Sense of Management. London: SAGE Publications.

  • Anderson-Gough, F., Grey, C., & Robson, K. (2001): “Tests of time: organizational time-reckoning and the making of accountants in two multi-national accounting firms.” Accounting, Organizations and Society, 26, 99–122.
  • Ashcraft, K.L. (2013): “The Glass Slipper: ‘Incorporating’ Occupational Identity in Management Studies.” Academy of Management Review, 38, 6–31.
  • Bunting, M. (2005): Willing Slaves. London: HarperCollins Publishers.
  • Coffey, A.J. (1994): “`Timing is Everything'; Graduate Accountants, Time and Organizational Commitment.” Sociology, 28, 943–956.
  • Costas, J., & Grey, C. (2012): “Outsourcing your Life: Exploitation and Exploration in ‘the 4-Hour Workweek’.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations, 37, 221–247.
  • Costas, J., Blagoev, B., & Kärreman, D. (2016): “The arena of the professional body: Sport, autonomy and ambition in professional service firms.” Scandinavian Journal of Management, 32, 10–19.
  • Covaleski, M.A., Dirsmith, M.W., Heian, J.B., & Samuel, S. (1998): “The Calculated and the Avowed: Techniques of Discipline and Struggles Over Identity in Big Six Public Accounting Firms.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 43, 293–327.
  • Dumas, T.L., & Sanchez-Burks, J. (2015): “The Professional, the Personal, and the Ideal Worker: Pressures and Objectives Shaping the Boundary between Life Domains.” Academy of Management Annals, 9, 803–843.
  • Ekman, S. (2013): “Work as Limitless Potential – how managers and employees seduce each other through dynamics of mutual recognition.” Human Relations, 66, 1159–1181.
  • Empson, L. (2017): Leading Professional Organizations: Power, Politics, and Prima Donas. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Engel, G.V. (1970): “Professional autonomy and bureaucratic organization.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 15, 12–21.
  • Galanter, M., & Palay, T.M. (1990): “Why the Big Get Bigger: The Promotion-to-Partner Tournament and the Growth of Large Law Firms.” Virginia Law Review, 76, 747.
  • Kärreman, D., & Alvesson, M. (2004): “Cages in tandem: Management control, social identity, and identification in a knowledge-intensive firm.” Organization, 11, 149–175.
  • Kärreman, D., & Alvesson, M. (2009): “Resisting resistance: Counter-resistance, consent and compliance in a consultancy firm.” Human Relations, 62, 1115–1144.
  • Kellogg, K.C. (2011): Challenging Operations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lupu, I., & Empson, L. (2015): “Illusio and overwork: playing the game in the accounting field.” Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 28, 1310–1340.
  • Mazmanian, M. (2012): “Avoiding the trap of constant connectivity: When congruent frames allow for heterogeneous practices.” Academy of Management Journal, 56, 1225–1250.
  • Mazmanian, M., Orlikowski, W.J., & Yates, J. (2013): “The Autonomy Paradox: The Implications of Mobile Email Devices for Knowledge Professionals.” Organization Science, 24, 1337–1357.
  • Michel, A.A. (2007): “A distributed cognition perspective on newcomers' change processes: The management of cognitive uncertainty in two investment banks.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 52, 507–557.
  • Michel, A.A. (2011): “Transcending Socialization: A Nine-Year Ethnography of the Body’s Role in Organizational Control and Knowledge Workers’ Transformation.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 56, 325–368.
  • Michel, A.A. (2014): “Participation and Self-Entrapment: A 12-Year Ethnography of Wall Street Participation Practices’ Diffusion and Evolving Consequences.” The Sociological Quarterly, 55, 514–536.
  • Muhr, S.L., Pedersen, M., & Alvesson, M. (2012): “Workload, Aspiration, and Fun: Problems of Balancing Self-Exploitation and Self-Exploration.” In: M. Holmqvist & A. Spicer (eds.): Work Life. Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 37. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing, 193–220.
  • Perlow, L.A. (2012): Sleeping with Your Smartphone. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Reid, E. (2015): “Embracing, Passing, Revealing, and the Ideal Worker Image: How People Navigate Expected and Experienced Professional Identities.” Organization Science, in press.
  • Robertson, M., & Swan, J. (2003): “’Control – What Control?’ Culture and Ambiguity Within a Knowledge Intensive Firm.” Journal of Management Studies, 40, 831–858.
  • Sandberg, J., & Pinnington, A.H. (2009): “Professional Competence as Ways of Being: An Existential Ontological Perspective.” Journal of Management Studies, 46, 1138–1170.
  • Townley, B. (1994): Reframing Human Resource Management. Power, Ethics and the Subject at Work. London: SAGE Publications.
  • Wajcman, J. (2014): Pressed for Time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Blagoy Blagoev is Lecturer in Organization Studies at Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany. He received his doctoral degree from Freie Universität Berlin. Blagoy’s work focuses on the interplay of time and temporality with processes and practices of organizing. Among other things, he has conducted research on the formation and persistence of organizational time regimes, the temporal coordination of organizational routines, and the entanglement of organizational remembering with materiality.
Laura Empson is Professor in the Management of Professional Service Firms and Director of the Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School, City, University of London, UK. She is also Senior Research Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession. She has dedicated the past 25 years to researching professionals and professional service firms and has published numerous articles in leading academic journals as well as three Oxford University Press books on the subject. Her current research study focuses on leadership dynamics in professional service firms. Her research into professional service firms has also covered themes such as: governance, mergers and acquisitions, the professionalisation of management, organizational and identity change, knowledge management, diversity and overwork.
Renate Ortlieb is Professor of Human Resource Management at the University of Graz, Austria, and chief editor of the ‘German Journal of Human Resource Management’. Her current research interests include migrant/ethnic minority employees and refugees, national working time configurations, gender and diversity, academic careers and working conditions of young self-employed people.