No Image Available

Overtime: Just plain cruel. By Sarah Fletcher


At primary school it was all so simple. Three o’clock came around, the bell rang and we all rushed joyfully into the playground for our mummies to take us home and feed us biscuits. Home Time was clear, regular and there was no question of us staying late.

But then, alas, we grew up and were forced to get actual jobs and sometimes even a ‘career’, which suggests you make an effort not to swear at the boss, write your name on the toilet walls and get fired before lunch. It also requires you to attempt to keep your manager happy; and all too often this involves showing your commitment by staying later than anyone else. If you can summon the strength to bang out that last email at 9pm, the theory goes, then you’ve proven your value. Yet not all of us feel overjoyed at the prospect of taking up residence under our desks, so if Home Time is good, why do we feel so bad?

“Given the many health problems associated with working overtime – stress, illness, workplace accidents and a non-existent sex drive – you’d think we’d do more to combat the UK’s long hours culture. Perhaps we’re too exhausted and depressed to bother.”

If you work in an office where, as the clock hits five pm, your boss leaps up to hand you your coat, shake your hand and sing you a cheerful song to bid you farewell, you’re lucky. Unfortunately, this scenario is rare outside of musicals. In reality, we’re often encouraged to compete with our colleagues, whether it’s to determine who can make the most noise about being so busy that they may suffocate under their many important tasks, or who can stay at work until everyone else has given up and gone home.

Given the many health problems associated with working overtime – stress, illness, workplace accidents and a non-existent sex drive – you’d think we’d do more to combat the UK’s long hours culture. Perhaps we’re too exhausted and depressed to bother.

So if our families or the NHS want someone to blame when we end up crying uncontrollably, hooked on pain killers, who’s responsible?

Rise up and rebel from this working hours hell, urges the government report Working long hours – Tackling a long hours culture. Staff should “contribute to cultural change particularly by valuing the contribution of those who choose not to work long hours”, it argues. So if you spot a colleague trying to sneak off when it’s officially home time, you should resist the urge to glare and tut loudly as they leave.

“If your boss is still soldiering away at 7pm, it’s a brave soul who dares to leave their desk and go home.”

However, breaking this habit is extremely difficult without the backing of senior management; staging a mutiny in which all staff march out of the office as the clock strikes 5 is an unrealistic dream. On the civil service website, the government suggests that responsibility lies, at least in part, with the employer. “Are you setting a good example by managing your own working hours and constantly questioning the impact of your actions on others?” it asks. If your boss is still soldiering away at 7pm, it’s a brave soul who dares to leave their desk and go home.

The HR department should be crucial in encouraging the employer to avoid a culture of regular overtime. An occasional late night at work isn’t going to break up families and send us all into a spiral of depression, but given the evidence that long hours actually harm employee productivity rates, turning what should be a one-off into an everyday routine is an expensive and problematic move for businesses.

The CIPD’s report, Work-life balance (June 2006), says line managers are the main cause for long working hours. “The biggest obstacle to implementing good practice is in many cases the difficulty of persuading individual line managers to accept more flexible working arrangements,” it argues. “This resistance is often based on assumptions about the likely problems that flexibility will cause that turn out to be unfounded.”

So what’s the solution? A good start is to educate line managers into the benefits of allowing employees to go home before midnight. The HR department should keep a close watch on proceedings to ensure that it actually works. And if senior management dig in their heels, perhaps a mutiny isn’t such a bad idea after all.

By Sarah Fletcher

7 Responses

  1. Even shorter hours focus the mind
    I am an HR Manager and work until 3.00 p.m. Monday to Wednesday and then full days on Thursday and Friday. Because I HAVE to leave on time (to collect my child from school) it can be stressful trying to fit everything in on those short days, but it really does focus the mind. I have to ensure that I concentrate on those jobs that must be done and my prioritising has to be good. I have to negotiate on some of those last minute jobs that get thrown at me and plan them in appropriately. As a result of my hours I have been given a phone so that I can be contacted outside work, but it is rare that it rings. I have to work hard to make sure that my hours work, but when I walk out at 3.00 (and there are occasionally some loud ‘Tuts’ from some as I do) I know that I have covered all that I need to. I have had three different bosses whilst working these hours, and although they are initially unsure that they can cope without their HR department (me) for a small part of the week, all have come to respect my hours and I have never had any issues about failing to fit in the work. So what am I trying to say? I suppose that I am saying if you HAVE to leave at a set time, then you have no alternative other than to ensure that you manage your work appropriately.

  2. Long Hours = Not up to Job?
    Several years ago a German colleague of mine impressed his perception of UK long hours culture on me so forcibly that I adopted it and have followed it ever since.

    His view was simple – if someone couldn’t get their job done in the alloted time then they weren’t up to the job and needed typical non-performer support.

    It has been quite amazing how quickly the culture changes when the fact that someone is at their desk at 8am and still there at 7pm is put to them in a review as “you seem to be having difficulties in getting your job done within the working day… is there any help we can provide… specific subject training, time management training etc.”

    What is more amazing is that having followed this approach in several different organisations the teams in question have always ended up improving their overall performance. As another wise colleague put it to me “we have about six good hours work in us a day – the rest of the time we spend is a measure of our inefficiency”

    Next time you’re still at your desk at 7pm ask yourself – did I really use all my time today efficiently?

  3. Working long hours doesn’t make us work better
    Hi Nicky,

    I agree that in the case of small businesses, uncommitted employees can be a significant problem. However, all too often, overtime doesn’t mean greater productivity. In the UK we work some of the longest hours in Europe but we’re among the least productive. Perhaps the issue should be how to make staff more efficient during the hours they do work, rather than whether they should be working until late into the evening.

    Kind regards,
    Sarah Fletcher
    HR Zone

  4. Greater commitment
    I am a small business owner, and it is typical in our company for the employees to rush off at 5.30 and the owners to work late into the night. Stop damning the long hours culture, small companies need committed employees that see the vision and will put a bit of extra effort in to see them grow. Otherwise our enterprise culture will get further lost in a sea of regulation and Job’s-worths.

    So I say “Go to work and put in all the necessary effort to make a success of whatever you do”. When that is done don’t feel guilty about going home. I don’t intrinsically mind employees going home on time but more often than not the owners end up picking up the pieces from jobs abandoned half finished. The culture of casual dis-engagement is far more damaging to the whole country than any long hours problems – let’s solve this one first.

  5. is this true???
    Not Sarah’s article but a story I’ve heard…

    “A Japanese employer (US Owned) had such concerns over the long hours culture that, after various “soft approaches to culture change”, they set time clocks on the power in the offices. If you were still working at 6pm the lights went out and 10 minutes later the power to all the PC’s switched off”

    I don’t know if this story is true but if not it is a piece of inspired lateral thinking!

    Any UK employer got the hutzpah to try it?


  6. when does the habit of working late really start?
    Hi Sarah – great article
    You said that when the bell goes we know it is home time – great at junior school – but what about secondary school?

    Many schools now have breakfast clubs and more have ‘after school’ clubs – at my daughters school they insist the children attend at least 3 out of school clubs per week – so starting the long hours is educated in from an early age. The irony is that the government is the one starting this. Now while as parents it can be of value, allowing more parents to work – it should be core school work (which should include games & fun stuff) not ‘extra hours’ – creating the long hours culture. And I have not even gone down the route of home work – if there are not enough hours to learn to the required level something should change – not make the children work harder and longer. Children are told they have 1 hour per day home work – it is more like 2-3 hours in reality.

    The old factory jobs and latterly the call centre jobs which are hourly paid, people in these roles generally start & finish on time. If HR really want to stop the log hours culture changing legislation is not the answer – the real answer is for everyone to return to being hourly paid. That way if you work extra hours you get time of in lieu or your take home pay increases. Organisations under-staff because they know that others will pitch up and cover the slack – it is expected. Many organisation claim that they do not – so walk around the office at 1800 – how many people are still there – its not usually because they WANT to be there.

    Why do we feel bad if we do not work late – easy we have been conditioned to. We are told we cannot perform if we do not do all of our work in the allotted hours – the irony is that no-one knows how long most jobs would/ should take. Years ago when I worked in manufacturing we had a team of production engineers whose sole job was to work out how long certain tasks should take & how many people should be employed to do the job – it was called work-study (or before that time & motion). Today we seem to think of a job title and a set of responsibilities and recruit.

    Mike Morrison

No Image Available

Get the latest from HRZone

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.