Working overtime is part and parcel of many jobs in various industries. The expectations placed on employees can be very different depending on the specific responsibilities involved, the industry the company operates in, and the company’s culture. If you’re a doctor and the reason you end up putting in more hours than you theoretically are required to is because you have emergency patients and can’t simply leave the hospital when you’re meant to clock out, then fair enough. It’s hard to reasonably say something against those situations.
However, there’s a big difference between that particular “unavoidable” situation and these ones:
Maybe you find yourself working a few hours extra a day, not because you have to or because other people expect it from you but because you just don’t get round to all of the things you want to do during the work day. Maybe your boss makes a small comment in passing about your slow progress on a project and you find yourself wanting to prove your boss wrong. Maybe you’re based in Europe, while most of your colleagues are in the US, and so you start checking their very interesting discussions even though you’ve already stopped working for the day.
There are all of these small ways in which overtime creeps into the workplace, especially when more and more people work from home and the usual boundaries that used to exist are getting less and less clear. There’s a certain conflict around working overtime by choice.
On the one hand, we’re all adults and can make our own choices about how much we work. If I decide today that those extra hours are going to help me in the future, then I should make that choice. There are many studies around how putting in extra hours does actually pay off, in terms of future promotions, pay raises and so on. Working more often means you get more done and that does have knock-on effects on your career. You could choose to do it for any number of reasons: you’re feeling especially productive today and are making huge progress on a project, so you decide to not stop working yet. There’s an emergency at work that needs to be handled immediately and you feel responsible for doing your part. All of these are great impulses.
The question is: how much and how often can you work overtime until it starts having a detrimental impact on you and your life. There’s a number of ways in which working overtime can be harmful.
By taking up so much of your time, it limits the amount of time you have available for your own hobbies and interests. It also cuts into time that you would otherwise spend with family. These together can impact your relationships and how satisfied you are with life in general, since you have fewer opportunities to develop your skills and relationships independently of work.
When you work overtime, you also contribute to the culture around overtime in your own company. It’s important to keep in mind that most people take their cues from the people around them. This is especially relevant if you’re a manager or hold any position of seniority (although it still applies in all cases). If your company has this culture independently of what you’re doing, then it’s worth thinking about whether you want to contribute to that or not. It’s easy for there to be an unwritten rule or an implicit expectation that people simply put in more hours than they’re required to.
If you consistently work overtime for a longer period of time, it’s likely that this will eventually translate into burnout. Burnout has become something of a widespread term in recent years but it’s still easy to get caught up in the habits that lead to it despite the awareness of it. Maybe you find yourself having a work conversation at 10pm. Maybe your threshold for working overtime has gotten a lot lower, so rather than only working extra when you have a major deadline coming up, you just do it because you want to finish a couple of extra to-do’s. These are small habits that, when they build up over time, can become huge stressors.
So you need to be able to recognise when it’s morphing from being something you choose to do for a rational reason to something that’s actively harming you.
The trick is: self-reflection!
- Pay attention to your hours. How many hours are you putting in?
- Look at your habits throughout the work day. Do you take breaks? Is your day structured and focused?
- Every time you choose to work overtime, ask yourself the following questions:
- “Am I doing this because I feel I have to or because I want to?”
- Then question that. Why might you feel like you have to? Why do you want to?
- “What will I get out of doing work on this now?”
- “Is there anything else that I would rather do right now?”
The moment you start feeling a little bit weary or like you face a certain amount of dread to get through it, is the moment you know you should handle it differently.
My personal struggle has been learning to switch my brain off after working hours. I still, very often, turn off my laptop and immediately start thinking about everything that I still have to do. Sometimes I can help myself by just writing down what’s on my mind – working a little extra for the sake of longer term peace of mind. Sometimes, it takes much more discipline to make the choice to not work.