"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 poor estimation. 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 overtime ever be a positive option for employees, or should it always be see as the mark of an unstable and potentially exploitative workplace?
Most people aren’t thrilled by the idea of overtime, and for very good reason. Working overtime 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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Clearly overtime is far from a black-and-white issue, so how can you ensure your overtime practices stay positive, fair and responsible?
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 manage their working hours, either to balance out any overtime or secure fair compensation for it. There are a few different ways you can track overtime—ranging from basic to high-tech methods. Automatic time trackers are ideal for those who want accurate overtime records with minimal effort.
Actively work against a stay-late culture in your office to ensure people don’t fall into overtime against their will—that applies to virtual presenteeism among remote staff as well as people working from the office. 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 to ensure people are taking necessary breaks from work, and make space for quality rest.