Working overtime: exploitation or opportunity?

Last updated on 
February 12, 2021

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"Overtime" is a term saturated with negativity. People usually do it because they have to, not because they choose to – typically as a result of projects swelling out of proportion, or because someone got their estimates wrong. But overtime can also be an opportunity: something that people voluntarily commit to for additional compensation or greater schedule flexibility. So should workplaces always guard against it? Can it actually be a positive option for employees, or should it always be see as something undesirable – the mark of an unstable and potentially exploitative workplace?

The problems with overtime

Most people aren’t thrilled by the idea of overtime, and for very good reason. It comes with a whole host of problems, many of which are more overt than others. In the majority of contexts, overtime can be symptomatic of:

  • An overstretched workforce: If you’re having to ask employees to put in extra hours, surely that’s a sign you simply don’t have enough resources to manage your workload?
  • Poor project estimation or time management: Overtime suggests that you underestimated the time a project would need at the scoping stage, or that you didn’t allow employees enough time to focus on it in addition to their other work. Either way, it doesn’t look good!
  • Unrealistic client expectations: Having to work overtime can also occur where clients aren’t aware of the time tasks take, aren’t clear that a brief has been finalized, or put pressure on you to compete projects in unworkable time spans. It can be a sign that you’re selling yourself short or not communicating project plans clearly.
  • Communication breakdown: Overtime also indicates communication issues more widely. Needing more hands on deck suggests that no one is imposing proper working boundaries or setting realistic expectations – or if they are, they aren’t doing a good job of it.
  • Toxic company culture: Many workplaces have a culture of staying late, beyond contractual working hours. It leads to the problem of presenteeism, where employees think they have to put in overtime – and be noticed doing so – if they want to succeed. A recent study found that the average American worked an extra 23 hours each month just to be more visible!

In all these cases, overtime is clearly a reflection of poor leadership. When it becomes a structural problem, it can breed employee resentment, distrust and ultimately disengagement – harming your company’s productivity in spite of the extra working hours put in.

The benefits of overtime

That said, there are cases where overtime offers certain benefits for workers. These mainly relate to situations where overtime is optional, but even when it’s mandatory, robust compensation written into an employee’s contract can still turn it into a positive. It's important to consider that overtime can also:

  • Give workers the opportunity to earn more: Extra hours can often mean getting paid time and a half, or sometimes even double pay. If you’re looking to make some extra cash quickly, overtime can be the easiest and most obvious solution.
  • Take advantage of your individual productive flow: We all work in different ways; some of us do our best work in the mornings, but if you’re a night owl, you may not get into your flow until late afternoon. The ability to work overtime means you can capitalize on your natural workflow, which may not fit into 9-5 working pattern… and make money in the process.
  • Offer autonomy and flexibility: Allowing workers to take advantage of their natural productivity flows and manage their own working schedules offers them independence and autonomy. For those who offer employees time in lieu for overtime, it can be useful for fitting work around personal commitments – working slightly later on a Monday so you can leave earlier on a Wednesday, or come in slightly later on a Thursday. It recognizes people aren’t cogs in machines, but are individuals who work in different ways and have different schedules.

But these pros and cons are not always this clear-cut. Short-term benefits can often usher in deeper long-term issues. While someone who is available to work extra time can benefit, someone with more personal commitments can find the practice unfair. And to truly label overtime as “beneficial”, there are a few terms it needs to satisfy openly first.

The issue of overtime pay

While some companies have clear policies on payment (e.g. "time and a half" or "double time"), others aren’t quite so clear… or quite so generous. Certain companies offer “payment in kind” – like paying for dinner while you work late, which hardly counts as payment. Worse still, others offer nothing at all. This is one of the biggest signs of a toxic working culture – one where employees are seen as limitless resources, instead of people.

Other companies allow you to counterbalance overtime by leaving early later in the week, or put the time worked towards extra vacation days. These perks can add to the sense of autonomy, of being able to shape your working schedule the ways you want, but the problem is that there’s a lack of consistency; employees remain uncertain over what’s required, how often they can work overtime into their schedule, or when they can actually take time in lieu.

In order to be truly beneficial, working overtime should always be met with some form of compensation – and that should be satisfactory for the employee, not just the employer. Otherwise it leads to accusations of wage theft and non-compliance with minimum wage legislation. This is a huge issue in employment law in Europe, with a 2019 EU directive introducing mandatory employee time tracking for all member states. The US also recently introduced new overtime rules in 2020 increasing the legal salary threshold eligible for overtime pay.

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Overtime and employee health

Obviously, working overtime can have a significant impact on employee health. Working too many hours can lead to burnout, fatigue and stress and employers need to ensure overtime is compliant with regulations on a worker’s right to rest.

Serially front-loading your week with work is rarely sustainable, in contrast to scheduling a manageable, regular flow of work throughout. Overtime can also actually seriously limit our productivity, since when we work extended hours, we don’t give our brains the rest they need to perform well. So working overtime itself doesn’t guarantee high-quality work for the extra effort.

But there are other adverse effects. Spending too long in the office can cause employees to lose motivation and become disengaged. Having a proper balance between work and home life is essential for maintaining wellbeing, and working overtime means you can’t prioritize your personal life. The more overtime you do, the less time you have for friends and family, and the less time you have to simply relax – something that’s imperative for good mental health.

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The impact of overtime on culture

Aside from the problem of presenteeism, overtime has other adverse effects on the workplace. It can hamper collaboration, for one: if employees leave early to make up for prior overtime, it’s harder for colleagues to coordinate with them – especially if a business works around core hours. Similarly, if certain employees leave at the normal time but other employees stay late, decisions can be made that are not collaborative, leading to miscommunication and frustration.

Working overtime can also be extremely harmful for company culture. Even when people choose to stay late, and do so because they genuinely want to, it works to slowly normalize overtime. Other people will feel obliged to stay late because everyone else does, brewing resentment… not an environment you want to spend extra time in!

Continually seeing people staying late also doesn’t do wonders for management. It suggests productive output is valued above an employee’s humanity; as a person with families, friends and other interests. Good management recognizes and respects the importance of personal lives outside of work.

✌️ Why company culture matters

Staying in control of overtime

Clearly overtime is far from a black-and-white issue, so how can you ensure your overtime practices stay positive, fair and responsible?

Track overtime

Employers can’t see how much overtime people work and protect against abuses or inequalities without tracking it (besides, if you’re in Europe, it’s now a legal requirement). Tracking overtime also helps employees ensure they receive rightful compensation for total overtime worked. Just be sure to choose an employee-led solution that doesn’t transfer the responsibility of time tracking to employees. Automatic time trackers are ideal for those who want accurate records with minimal effort.  

Protect your culture

Actively work against a stay-late culture in your office to ensure people don’t fall into overtime against their will. Make sure everyone is clear on your company’s overtime policy, and that all terms are laid out in employment contracts. Keep on top of individual employee overtime patterns (you can use tracking for this too) to ensure people are taking necessary breaks from work, and make space for quality rest.

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