How Overtime is Killing Your Employees (and Your Business)

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HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

With research showing how long working hours can seriously impact people's health, is it time to look for alternatives to overtime?

Article 4 Minutes
How Overtime is Killing Your Employees (and Your Business)

When you're up against it at work - an urgent deadline is looming, for example, or a client has asked you to complete a huge project in a tight timeframe - asking employees to do overtime might be one of your first thoughts.

But is this really the most effective way to increase productivity?

Research has highlighted the extent to which long working hours can impact the health of your employees. As well as posing a risk to wellbeing in the workplace, this can create serious financial and operational problems for the business in the long term.

So if overtime is a fundamental part of how the organization functions, it could be time to look for a new strategy.

The dangers of working long hours

The latest insights into the dangers of excessive working came from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization, which estimated that long hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016. This marked a 29% increase from 2000.

Published in Environment International, the global analysis showed that 398,000 people died from stroke and 347,000 from heart disease in 2016 as a result of working at least 55 hours a week.

Nearly three-quarters (72%) of these deaths occurred among men. In addition, people living in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions were also at higher risk, along with middle-aged and older workers.

The WHO warned that the number of people working long hours is on the rise, currently standing at 9% of the global population.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the organization's director-general, also highlighted the impact of COVID-19, which has normalized remote working and, for many people, blurred the boundaries between home and work.

"Many businesses have been forced to scale back or shut down operations to save money, and people who are still on the payroll end up working longer hours. No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease. Governments, employers and workers need to work together to agree on limits to protect the health of workers." - Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
 

The productivity impact

Unscrupulous employers might be willing to accept the impact of overtime on employee health as a worthwhile price to pay for higher productivity and positive outcomes for the business. But in reality, it's more likely that asking your people to work excessive hours at the expense of their health will have damaging effects for the company and its bottom line.

People who have to continue working even when they're mentally and physically exhausted are more likely to make mistakes. If you're pushing your employees to work long hours to reach a crucial deadline, a high error rate could have a serious impact on the eventual outcome of the project. You could find yourself wasting time and budget having to go back and correct mistakes, or the company could lose business if the customer isn't happy with the end result.

Furthermore, overworking your employees will create an increased risk of stress, anxiety and eventual burnout, at which point your workers won't be able to do their jobs to an acceptable standard.

These issues will have knock-on effects such as high absenteeism and staff turnover, which will create resourcing shortages and leave the business facing the operational disruption and financial cost of hiring to plug workforce gaps.

So what's the solution?

One positive step that can help the business reduce its reliance on overtime is to stop focusing on the number of hours people work and concentrate on their productivity instead. Work alongside project managers to plan and implement processes that will give you a results-based view of how your teams are performing.

Fixating on hours and constantly resorting to overtime will prove a false economy, since you're paying more for staff to work for long periods during which they're unlikely to be productive due to mental and physical fatigue.

You should also consider practical changes that could help your employees make the best use of their normal working hours, so overtime isn't required.

This might include:

  • Canceling unnecessary meetings, or giving employees who are particularly busy the freedom to decide whether or not they need to attend
  • Making sure your teams have all the tools and support they need to work efficiently
  • Being flexible in how, where and when people work, as long as you can see clear evidence that this helps them make better use of their time

In the long term, positive measures like these that support your staff and drive efficiency will prove infinitely more sustainable and beneficial than overtime.

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