Could overworking be affecting your productivity?

Article3 mins20 October 2020By Alison Cheung

While it may sound like a good idea to work day and night to get a tricky project done, the negative longer-term impacts of overworking, both on the employee and the business, may outweigh the immediate benefits.

It is often said that employees are a company’s greatest asset, yet many workers find themselves stuck in a cycle of long hours and short breaks. 

Last year, full-time employees in Australia worked an average of 5.2 hours of unpaid overtime a week, or an extra 13 per cent of their standard paid working week, according to the Centre of Future Work’s report Excessive Hours and Unpaid Overtime.

Those unpaid hours of work are worth a staggering $61.2 billion of foregone income, excluding superannuation, for Australian full-time workers in 2019, the report estimates.


"Ultimately businesses benefit more from a balanced, healthy, stable workforce. That means workers must be treated like human beings, not just productive inputs.”

Dr Jim Stanford Centre for Future Work
Overworking now “ubiquitous” and normal

Dr Jim Stanford, Director of the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute, said the research showed that excessive unpaid overtime is “ubiquitous” in Australia.

“Of course, there will always be temporarily longer hours for peak periods, deadlines, etc., but that is not what is happening in Australia, where long hours – millions of them unpaid – are now a normal practice,” he said.

Dr Stanford said overworking employees “is a short-sighted business strategy”.

“Ultimately firms benefit more from a balanced, healthy, stable workforce. That means workers must be treated like human beings, not just productive inputs.”

Dr Stanford added that younger workers are more vulnerable as they may be less aware of their basic legal rights and lack confidence in asserting those rights.

“They understand well that if they want to get a decent job, they have to go the extra mile: working long hours without complaint, doing extra duties, even working for free (through) unpaid internships.”

Technology enabling overworking

A US study of a top consulting firm, published in Organization Science, found that some high-ranking male executives regularly faked 80-hour work weeks to pass as the company’s “ideal worker”. 

These men worked between 50 and 60 hours and, while these are still long hours, they not only managed to get their jobs done but were also rewarded with promotions and bonuses – all while working 20 hours less than what was expected.

This was made possible largely through the aid of technology, including emails, which displayed the online status of colleagues, and phone and conference calls.

Digital wellbeing and productivity researcher Dr Kristy Goodwin said productivity has been relatively easy to measure in blue-collar work environments, such as on a factory floor or a building site. But this is not the case for knowledge workers as “output isn’t always tangible”.

“Instead, employees work long hours and late hours in the office, or online sending emails, as markers for their output and effort,” she said.

“The advent of mobile technologies and adoption of more flexible work arrangements where employees can work remotely has resulted in employees being connected and responsive at all hours of the day.”

This lack of work-life boundary is overwhelming employees, Dr Goodwin said.

“The ubiquitous adoption of mobile technologies means that employees’ work now bleeds into their personal lives.”

Valuing a productive workplace culture

Dr Goodwin suggested making non-working time “more visible” to employees, so they understand that there is no need to be always available.

“Encourage leaders to be more transparent about taking lunch breaks, leaving the office on time, working flexibly, going on holidays, talking about life outside of work or their extra care responsibilities beyond the office and encouraging colleagues to do the same.”

Occupational rehabilitation psychologist Hayley Yi said employees may feel fatigue and resentment towards the company for not being recognised or compensated for the overtime.

Overworking can also cause burnout, stress, poor decision-making, more errors and therefore more time spent correcting those errors in the long run.

For the employer, the costs repairing those mistakes need to be considered, along with other costs associated with possible physical and psychological workplace injuries.

Ms Yi believes overworking does not always translate to productivity, as employees could spend hours on a single task without producing meaningful work.

She added that not only should companies discourage employee overworking, they should also be upfront about it during the onboarding of new staff and in company meetings and internal communications. 

“If a business has a clear position on this, and managers are reinforcing this message at a team and individual level, it can become a new normal and form a shared belief about how productive work is valued over prolonged work,” she said.

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