A few weeks ago, businessman NR Narayana Murthy sparked a debate when he suggested that India’s “low productivity” could be improved if young people worked 70 hours a week. The support for his suggestion and the backlash to it point squarely to the problems of “greedy work” – a concept that lies at the heart of the research of Claudia Goldin, who last month was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.

“Greedy work”, Goldin explained, is a job that pays disproportionately more on a per-hour basis when individuals work a greater number of hours or have less control over those hours. Any job that requires long, inflexible hours could be categorised as greedy work.

Conventionally, this kind of work was prevalent in businesses where the expectation of long working hours is the norm, especially if workers are required to be accessible for calls with clients late in the evening and on weekends. However, greedy work is now common across many professions.

Greedy work, as Goldin noted, exacts an especially heavy toll on women. Women often opt out of such jobs because of childcare and domestic chores – which results in women being paid less than men for the same jobs. But greedy work also imposes social costs that transcend gender boundaries and has implications for work-life balance, work culture and the perception of workplace justice.

Expanding Goldin’s thesis beyond the gender pay gap could help rebuild the relationship of employees with their workplaces in a more healthy, equitable way.

Greedy work exists because there is a market for it. Capitalistic systems tap into greed and reward it since it is recognised as the driving force of economic growth.

But greedy work is more than just stretched work hours translating into pay gaps. It extends to ideas of a human resource that is “flexible”, “accommodative” and “multitasking”. It deals with time, energy and the ability to engage in professional networking as “strategic partnerships” that contribute to professional growth.

This leads organisations to design incentive structures that perpetuate self-interest, with or without recognising the complex reality of human lives.

Among the main criticisms of Murthy’s suggestion – and greedy work – was that it would disrupt the work-life balance, which is the amount of time people spend at work and amount they have for tasks at home and for leisure.

Organisations most often recognise work-life balance mostly in the domain of childbirth, and infant and childcare. But the importance of leisure and self care for a balanced life is not something that is considered. The incentive structure of organisations pays those who are willing and able to trade off personal time for additional responsibilities or meeting weekend deadlines.

The incentives are not always for immediate monetary gains but could be in terms of the employee general signalling that they are “reliable” and “dependable”, which is perceived to grant long-term professional benefits.

Those wanting to take part in the competition but unable to for want of support mechanisms to take care of competing demands on their time fall out of the race for institutional rewards. Depending on individual perceptions of priorities and the availability of support systems, the time tradeoffs in family time, leisure and self-care leads to varying levels of personal and professional satisfaction.

This market for greedy work creates a work culture fraught with unhealthily competitive tendencies. Employees who are able to participate in the market for greedy work look to spend the greatest time on tasks that give them visibility, substantive individual recognition and increase their social status.

This can give rise to free riding – these individuals reap the rewards of team efforts to which they have not made proportionate contributions. It has consequences for overall team efficiency and morale, adding to a general atmosphere of mistrust.

All this can undermine a sense of workplace justice – the perception of employees that they are being treated fairly, honestly and justly. The sense is amplified if employees are unable or do not hold the power to choose to participate in such greedy work.

In the absence of a competitive level playing field, employees may come to believe that mechanisms for workplace feedback are unjust, as is the distribution of rewards and resources. The processes and standards adopted at the workplace and the inconsistencies in their applications could be seen as unfair, as is interpersonal treatment at the workplace.

However, the social costs of greed could be tamed if organisational structures enhance transparency, procedural clarity and offer a culture that encourages work that is cooperative.

Delinking material benefits from work that takes on a “greedy nature” and creating incentive mechanisms that symbolically reward the meaningful contribution of individuals could foster healthy competition and communicate a greater sense of workplace justice.

M Manjula and Deepa E are faculty, at School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. Analysing development processes and outcomes from a gender lens is one among their varied research interests.

The content and opinions expressed are that of the authors’ and are not necessarily endorsed by and do not necessarily reflect the views of Azim Premji University.