Overtime diligence driver or stress signal?

Written by
Kelly Feehan

18 Aug 2017

18 Aug 2017 • by Kelly Feehan

To get ahead in life, we’re usually told we need to work hard. Be this at school to achieve the grades we want, university to secure a degree or at work to attain that promotion. Instilling a form of diligence, or the ability to work hard to get what you want is encouraged from a young age, and this quality often transfers into the workplace. 

This work ethic can be demonstrated in a variety of ways – working longer hours than contracted, working tirelessly throughout the day or being on call at the weekend or while on holiday. In fact, demonstrating commitment via working overtime is now a fairly common occurrence. Our research recently found that 59% of employees and managers admit that they work longer than their contracted hours, with almost a third (29%) working more than five additional hours per week. This may not sound much by itself, but when you total this over the course of a year, this adds up to roughly 30 working days of 7.5 hours. Scary, yes?

So where do you draw the line between conscientiousness and overwork (and the consequent potential to lead to burnout)? While every employee recognises they’ll need to work hard from time to time (which may involve working outside contracted hours to complete a job), the 9 to 5 no longer exists, with emails constantly being checked and an ‘always on’ culture blurring the lines between work and home time. Therefore, it’s becoming increasingly hard to monitor excessive work, as, in some circles, it's considered normal to email late into the night or work long office hours – be it through fear or ambition.

With employees potentially continuously exposed to work (via emails on phones, for example) and so much technology enabling remote and flexible working, how can employee output be monitored and protected? It may sound like a counterintuitive argument to tell an employee not to work as hard, but with the health of an employee in question, HR needs to start stepping in. If the workforce needs to keep working into their 70s which is looking increasingly likely with pension ages increasing, welfare needs to be top of the agenda. This means clamping down on regular overtime and reinstating a proper work-life balance. This should no longer be a nice-to-have, it’s a necessity. 

Why do I say this? Because HR is responsible for furthering the interests of employees as well as the wider business, and for employees to be truly engaged with a business, they need to know their employer cares about them, not just their output. Plus, there are significant business benefits to fresh, healthy employees, which fewer overtime hours will facilitate:

Set clear boundaries

1.    Clarity: Working long hours can be counterproductive, as employees can’t maintain focus for prolonged periods. It’s not the hours employees put in which will demonstrate their commitment and ability to do a good job; it’s about working smart. If a business needs employees to think on their feet and come up with solutions, then giving them a break will facilitate this. Creativity and lightbulb moments come when employees are fresh and let their mind wander. Having time to think is crucial; emphasising the importance of taking a lunch break and encouraging employees to leave on time. If work is being produced late into the night, the quality may be questionable, and then takes up more time from the senior team in reviewing poor quality work. If output is an issue, then surely saving time up the reviewing process is just as valuable as how long someone has worked? Better quality means fewer amends and less time spent correcting, freeing up senior time for more strategic work.

2.    Mental wellness: Bby working long hours, employees sacrifice their work-life balance, which increases the risk of mental ill health or burnout. Spending an additional hour in the office may not seem like much, but it mounts up. This extra hour could be spent with friends or family, at the gym or in bed. Many factors affect our stress levels, but key impactors are sleep, nutrition and our support network. Encouraging employees to get home and embrace life outside work may mean a job is left until tomorrow, but it may mean the employee remains engaged with the business instead of resenting being in the workplace, not at home

3.    Attention to detail: Employees can never disconnect when they’re always reaching for their devices to see if their client or boss has emailed. This keeps adrenalin flowing through the body, and this primitive state actually prevents higher cognitive thinking  – meaning the ability to think and do a comprehensive job is significantly impaired. Set clear boundaries on email and communication to support healthy practices and stop this health drain.

Encourage healthy working practices

Overtime will never be eradicated, as there are times when working over and above is necessary. However, it should never be the norm. Encouraging good working practices has never been more important, even if it doesn’t meet the expectations of senior management.

Working effectively, by having good time management, good delegation skills and team work will benefit the business productivity far more than tired employees, who are reluctantly chained to their desks. Enabling employees to re-energise themselves by taking part in activities they enjoy, will ultimately improve their wellbeing and performance, meaning output will be levelled out and a higher quality produced.