Overtime is harmful — confirmed by science

overtired cat on keyboard

Working more than 40 hours in a week? You are probably doing more harm than good. Studies show that people who regularly work more than 40 hours put their health at risk, and are likely contributing negative productivity to their organisation.

While we are collectively starting to recognise the pitfalls of the cult of busy-ness, we have a long way to go before the idea of consistent overtime moves from stressed, glorified martyrdom into what it actually is: an acute business risk and a sign of poor management.

Sources of risk

Why would working extra hours constitute a business risk?

  • Persistent overtime (40+ hours a week) disturbs your sleep quality and quantity and if the origin over the time isn't stressful in and of itself, the loss of work/life balance certainly is.
  • Stressed and fatigued people tend to drink more alcohol to unwind. High levels of alcohol consumption increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, weight gain, diabetes, and poor sleep.
  • Fatigued people are more prone to injury. While this research article covers manual labourers, the underlying problem is that a tired person doesn't think as fast, or as critically, or have the perception skills of someone well rested. The kind of thinking error that leads to failing to secure a heavy load which then falls and causes an injury, could also lead a knowledge worker to fall for a phishing attack, or forget to shut down a temporary API endpoint.
  • Fatigued people make errors of judgement. Unable to sustain concentration, they can make ill-considered decisions quickly, or they are unable to make any decision.
  • Fatigued and stressed people struggle to take in body language and social cues, being unable to ‘read the room’. They are often quick tempered. All of this leads to communication breakdowns and ruptures of trust.

In the best case, the overworked person needs to take more time off than the overtime they worked, so that their body, mind and social connections have a chance to recover. Worst case: they end up with long term ill health; a possible work cover claim; and the team has to spend more time addressing the errors made during the extra hours worked, than the gains from the overtime. This link between fatigue and risks isn't new: the Occupational Health and Safety Body of Knowledge devotes an entire chapter to fatigue.

Why overtime happens

Why do we do this to ourselves or to our teams? Psychological fallacies abound:

  • This is how I demonstrate worthiness to my boss/peers.
  • I must model a good work ethic for my team.
  • It is the only time I can think clearly.
  • I’m an imposter: I need to work twice as hard just to keep up.
  • It is just part of the job.
  • It is just temporary, until we get over the current crisis/deadline crunch.
  • Everything will fall over if I don’t do this work.
  • I wouldn't be doing anything at home anyway, I may as well be productive.
  • I've told them I’m too busy, but they keep giving me more work anyway.
  • … and more, the list goes on!

I’m sure you could think of responses to those explanations, that don’t include “You’re right, this overtime is absolutely unavoidable, and you should keep working a 55 hour week (or more) for many months to come.”

Breaking the cycle of chronic overwork

Whether this is for you, or someone on your team, there’s steps you can take! At its heart, overtime is a problem of too much work to be done for the number of hours in the day. We can’t add more hours (and if we did, we’d probably add them on the weekend anyway!), so we need to reduce the amount of work.

  1. Get analytical: write down the hours on the job every day for a few weeks. This gets a sense of the size of the problem, and identify if it’s cyclical. Don’t forget to record time when you’re supposed to be relaxing, but are on your phone reading messages and replying to emails.
  2. Get curious: is it as pervasive as you suspect? What are the contributing factors: work is consistently under-estimated, too many distractions or emergencies, you’re held up waiting for other people, the work environment isn't appropriate, there’s no clear definition of done so work expands to fill the available space? What else is going on inside or outside of work that might also be impacting?
  3. Go external: who and how is the pipeline of your work managed, for speed, volume, and complexity? Who prioritises the work and sets the schedule? Is there any time set aside for making the tools better or reducing technical debt in order to reduce emergencies or lower the effort required of making changes in code that’s patched over leaks with duct tape, held together with elastic bands and hot glue, with a variety of aging sticky notes saying “FIXME” or “TODO”.
  4. Go internal: what is it about how you work that’s contributing: do you find it hard to stay focussed on a boring task, are you easily distracted by non-urgent communications like slack and email, is your development environment inappropriate, what are part of your day to day duties that take time but aren't known by anyone else?

Now you know more, you can come up with a plan to address the contributing factors. It is highly likely you’ll need support to enact the plan: adding “disrupt the current pattern of work” to your already busy day is likely to add hours to your workload after all!

If you, or someone you know, your team, or your organisation seems unable to break free from a culture of persistent over work, the team at Blackmill can help you identify and resolve the challenges that are in the way. Whether you’re seeking better productivity or better health, contact us and together we can kick overtime to the kerb.

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