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Overworked employees: A risky business


Overworked employeeWith working weeks getting longer, employees are increasingly suffering from being overworked. Richard MacKinnon explains that employers are particularly at risk in the current economic environment.

Despite an overall decrease in working hours in the UK from 2000 to 2007, the average British working week is once again getting longer. Overwork, and the stress that results, can be debilitating and in some rare cases be a cause of death. In Japan, they’ve gone as far as naming the phenomenon of dying from overwork as Karoshi.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has found the trend most pronounced in the finance, retail, automotive and construction sectors. All of these industries are experiencing harder times due to the worsening economic climate in the UK, which may explain a certain degree of organisational belt-tightening and a renewed focus on cost reduction. Fewer hires, or even recruitment freezes, may mean existing staff have to absorb whatever workload comes their way.

“Fewer hires, or even recruitment freezes, may mean existing staff absorb whatever workload comes their way.”

Employees may have to work harder and longer as a result, or may indeed feel they have to be seen to be working harder which can translate into ‘presenteeism’: early starts and later finishes, in order to look keen and reduce the risk of redundancy.

A culture of long hours can quickly spread through a team, department and even across an entire organisation, if it is modelled by senior stakeholders or perceived by employees as a way to advance within the organisation – or even hold on to their job.

Long-hours culture

Causation aside, the impact of a lengthening working week will not be a positive one for either businesses or individual employees. UK employees already have the longest working hours in Western Europe – due in part to the UK government’s opt-out of the EU Working Time Directive. Can they survive any further increase? And what costs are associated with this move to a long-hours culture?

The costs hit businesses where it hurts: in terms of employee productivity. This may appear counterintuitive at first. Surely if employees are working longer hours, the employer can only benefit? Actually, longer hours do not directly translate into better quality output or even more output. In fact, chronic long hours at the office can negatively impact an employee’s ability to get the job done, while simultaneously reducing their job satisfaction and hastening their exit from the organisation.

Businesses are all too aware of the costs associated with organisational exit – but do they understand that letting their employees work longer and longer may be counter-productive?

We all need recovery time following any activity. The athletes performing in this summer’s Olympic Games are well aware of the need for ‘rest days’ during their training schedules. It gives their body time to recover from exertion, and repair any damage suffered as a result of training and performing. Employees also need ‘rest days’ and for many of us this is achieved at the weekend. But we also need sufficient rest and recovery in between working days.

“Chronic long hours at the office can negatively impact an employee’s ability to get the job done, while simultaneously reducing their job satisfaction and hastening their exit from the organisation.”

Longer hours at the office don’t permit our mind and body sufficient recovery from the stresses of the day and can turn periodic stress into a more chronic problem.

Insufficient relaxation between working shifts means that we approach the following working day in a sub-optimal state and may, as a result, not deliver our best. In addition, over time, a weakened employee experiences the impact of workplace stressors even more acutely due to the lack of rest and recuperation. Simultaneously, long evenings and nights at the office can impact our home life and any potential buffering or protective effect from personal relationships may disappear.

This can result in a downward spiral of stress and subsequent impact on the employee, ultimately leading to illness, absence and even in extreme examples, death.

Work-related stress

Death by overwork, while not common, does occur – a recent example cited by the press in Japan illustrates the very real dangers of a long-hours culture. More importantly, the Japanese courts recognised the rights of the deceased’s family to sue his employers for his death – they explicitly linked the long hours he worked and the cause of his death – a sobering thought for any employer.

While death due to overwork (as opposed to workplace accidents) is uncommon in the West, work-related stress is sadly not. As well as the impact on the health and wellbeing of employees experiencing stress, their employers also pay a price – quite a hefty one in fact. As recently as 2006, the TUC was putting the bill in the UK at £5bn per year, with nearly 6 million working days lost to stress each year.

Long hours are not the only stressor in the workplace – but they are one that employers can address, by:

  • Encouraging employees to work smarter, not longer, and rewarding innovation

  • Challenging presenteeism in the workplace and recognising those that work their set hours

  • Modeling appropriate working hours

This should not be in an attempt to make employees stick rigidly to a 35-hour working week – even this is being abandoned in France – but to free employees from the erroneous belief that they need to be at their desks late into the evening, to give them back their private lives and to ensure they have some discretionary effort to give when it really is required.

Richard MacKinnon is an occupational psychologist for people assessment company Talent Q.

One Response

  1. Make it a shared responsibility
    I agree with Richard’s comments about stress at work and in my work as a stress management specialist encourage a partnership between employee and employer to help get the balance right.

    Too often the focus is on or the other, but the only way to have an effective stress management policy for each to take responsibility for their side of things. In the case of the employer to ensure that the working environment and hours are reasonable and healthy and to train their managers to spot undue stress and their employees methods of maintaining healthy stress levels. In the case of the employee to take responsibility for their own health by putting what they learn through their employer’s training programmes and other initiatives into daily practice.

    Annie Lawler

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