Could working overtime make you less productive?

By Robert Half 23 August 2019

Do you regularly find yourself working overtime?

You’re not alone.

The “Go Home On Time Day” report by the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work estimated that Australian employees would work 3.2 billion hours of unpaid overtime during 2018.

It seems that working overtime has become the norm rather than the exception, so why do you put in so many extra hours? And is it a sign of dedication to your employer, or are you doing more harm than good?

Working overtime: Going above and beyond

Whilst 38 hours per week is the suggested maximum (for a full-time employee) outlined by the Australian Government's Fair Work Ombudsman, overtime can easily build up, from starting work early, finishing late and skipping lunch. Even when you leave the office you may still be in work-mode, doing extra tasks at home, feeling obliged to respond to emails or answering calls.

Technology can be partly to blame, as it enables you to easily be connected, whether you’re on the train, at home, or even on holiday.

You may feel obligated to do overtime because some of your colleagues are, so you want to look like a team player. The pressure to work long hours can be even more intense if you’re concerned about your job security and you feel that by putting in extra hours you can show your dedication to the job. Overtime may also help to impress your manager and could even lead to better job prospects in the long-term.

Are you working your way to higher productivity?

When you have a busy work schedule, you may assume that putting in twice as many hours means twice as much output. The reality though is that the more hours you put in, the less productive you become over time.

Regularly working overtime can cause you to become tired, stressed and may even lead to burnout. This will make it harder for you to concentrate and carry out tasks, so your job performance will decrease, and working to the point of exhaustion can lead to mistakes being made.

Working overtime can have longer-term health consequences too. It can contribute to depression and anxiety. It could increase blood pressure, affect your cardiovascular health and even put you at an increased risk of having a stroke.

Working too much and having a poor work-life balance may reduce your job satisfaction, resulting in lower motivation and productivity. The long work hours can have a significant impact on your personal life too, as you will have less quality time for yourself and with your family.

Sticking to your work hours can ensure you are happier and more productive. Sweden took this train of thought to the next level by carrying out a two-year experiment. Workers reduced their hours to six-hour days and the results showed that they had a better work-life balance, people phoned in sick less, were happier, had more job satisfaction and higher productivity.

Can you really say “no” to working overtime?

Whilst it might not be possible to reduce your hours like in Sweden, you could review the amount of overtime you agree to. Continuing working overtime on a regular basis could be seriously detrimental to your productivity and health. Whereas saying an outright “no” to working any overtime could give you the reputation of being a clock-watcher or you may seem not committed to your job. This could also go against you when it comes to performance reviews or applying for future jobs.

If you have an important deadline to meet, or an urgent task to work on, you may decide to put in some extra hours, to offer your support. During these short bursts of overtime, you can remain productive, but in the long run, excessive hours can be counterproductive.

The key is to create a balance and carry out overtime strategically rather than making it the norm. Balance is different for everyone so your personality, outside commitments, the type of job and job satisfaction will play a big part in deciding what works for you.

Rather than measuring your effectiveness by how many hours you put in, change your focus so you look at how much work you get done during your workday – It’s about working smarter not harder. Interestingly, Parkinson’s Law says that humans expand their work to fill the time available. So, being strict about setting a time for when you will leave the office, could mean that you get work done much quicker than if you planned to work overtime. To boost your work productivity, you must also stay focused and avoid distractions.

You’ll need to be disciplined and set proper boundaries to ensure your work doesn’t continue to creep into your personal life. But by doing so, you will benefit from having more time to spend doing things outside of work that you enjoy. You will have time to rest and relax so when you return to work the next day, your productivity levels will remain high.

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