Could working overtime make you less productive?

By Robert Half January 12, 2017 at 1:00pm

"I'm working overtime" is something Australians are saying more often these days according to research carried out by The Australia Institute.

While other developed countries like Sweden implement a six-hour work day to improve work-life balance, full-time employees in Australia are working close to 43 hours per week on average – well beyond the 38 ordinary hours maximum set by Fair Work National Employment Standards. So, why are we working so much overtime? And is it a sign of dedication or are we actually doing more harm than good?

Working overtime: Going above and beyond

A good work ethic is often seen as a prized trait in the workforce, and a simple way to show dedication to the job is to work extra hours.    

HR Consultant Phil Jones says, “Overtime can help you earn brownie points with superiors and impress your colleagues. Those who deliver can usually expect better career prospects too.”

Work culture is also impacted, with overtime creating a culture of "we get things done" rather than "we do enough to justify our salaries." he says.

In industries like finance and IT, unpaid overtime has become more accepted and expected, says Phil. The culture is self-perpetuating because of the success of the industries, he says. “Why would you stop doing something if you’re continually rewarded for doing it?”

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But are we working our way to misery?

Stress and burnout are obvious pitfalls for those who regularly work overtime. However, an international systematic review published in The Lancet, suggests there may be longer term health consequences. Examining the health impact of working overtime on workers around the world, including Australia, the researchers found that those who work longer hours have an increased risk of stroke and coronary heart disease.

And it’s not just health that’s impacted when we’re spending more hours at work. Senior Environmental Scientist Michelle Collins-Roe says that while she accepts overtime is part of her job, there are so many other things she’d rather be doing. “I’m a single mother who works full time. I don't want to miss any more time with my daughter. I enjoy my work, but I love my family.” 

Getting the balance right and being productive

Change Manager Joanne Drap says she generally works regular hours and has “very strong feelings around those who work longer hours who are not necessarily the best performers.” In her position with an IT outsourcing company, she says she found the opposite to be true. “Organised people tend to live fuller lives, get more done in a day and recognise what is not necessary.”

According to research carried out by Professor Colin McKenzie at Keio University, working too much can lead to stress and fatigue which then reduces cognitive skills. Productivity then declines as smaller tasks become harder tasks that are longer to carry out.

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Can we really say ‘no’ to working overtime?

At the end of the day though, if there is work waiting, it’s sometimes just not practical to walk out the door. The downside to avoiding working overtime is gaining a reputation as a clock-watcher or someone who is simply not committed to the job. This can go against you when it comes to your performance review or applying for future jobs.

How do you decide what’s right for you? Balance is, of course, different for everyone. Personality, outside commitments, the type of job and job satisfaction will play a big part in deciding what works for you.

Libby Hakim writes feature articles for leading newspapers and magazines and digital content for big brands and business clients. 

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