Can you work too much overtime?

Feeling overextended means it is time for a change by adjusting long working hours, improving your recovery strategies or recruiting assistance.

A recent OECD study shows more than 13 per cent of Australians regularly work 50 hours a week. What is the true cost of working excessive overtime?

Emily McCarthy

Head of secondment operations at Lawyers on Demand

Emily McCarthy.This is a question we thought about a lot when we set up our organisation. The traditional legal career pathway involves working excessively long hours in order to reach partner status; however, it comes at a cost, both to the individual and the client. Long hours are bad for health and for productivity. Clients pay for a high level of service that can’t be delivered when people are struggling with exhaustion.

Although long hours have always been tied closely with the legal industry, there are new organisations out there that are trying to change this by harnessing technology to provide client service on demand. This is giving rise to a new market for freelance lawyers who are looking for a better balance between work and life. In many cases, they are also choosing contract roles that they find more meaningful than they may experience working in large firms.

Lawyers On Demand provides different ways for lawyers to work through contract and secondment roles that suit them.

“Long hours are bad for health and for productivity. Clients pay for a high level of service that can’t be delivered when people are struggling with exhaustion.” Emily McCarthy

For example, they may take on a specific project with a client’s team four days a week for three months or manage overflow work for six months. They can also choose to work on call.

I think we will see more law firms starting up that cater to a desire for a healthy balance between work and life. A whole new generation is entering the workforce with different expectations of when and where they work and what they get out of it.

Professor Michael Leiter

Professor of Industrial and Organisational Psychology at Deakin University

Professor Michael Leiter.Working overtime can become a trap. A workable cycle is for people to expend energy through work followed by rest and recovery in their relationships, activities and quiet contemplation. The idea is not to jealously guard your energy; the idea is to expend it doing what matters, followed by renewal in preparation for the next round.

Being tired at the end of a demanding working day is not a problem when it is followed by recovery. What signals trouble is feeling tired before the working day even begins. That is a sure sign that your recovery cycles do not measure up to the demand. It signals that you are becoming overextended, a state of mind, body and soul where overwhelming workloads become your obsession.

Feeling overextended means it is time for a change by adjusting hours, improving your recovery strategies or recruiting assistance.

Left unattended, feeling overextended can turn into true burnout, a state that adds feelings of cynicism, resentment and discouragement to exhaustion. Burnout presents a much greater challenge than being overextended.

“What signals trouble is feeling tired before the working day even begins. That is a sure sign that your recovery cycles do not measure up to the demand.” Professor Michael Leiter

Working too many hours can make you sick, distressed and unhappy. Working too many hours is a bad deal for employers as well, as people can rarely maintain high-quality performance forever. They end up wasting time and making mistakes. Pressuring employees to do overtime is self-defeating all around. Selfcare and resilience help, but they are not enough. Employers need to have flexible, responsive policies that support a sustainable, productive workforce.

Hamish Smith

Manager - Finance at Robert Walters

Hamish SmithRegardless of industry, the Australian labour force is more interconnected than ever before. Despite being great for flexible working, the adoption of smartphones and tablets has meant we are accessible, available and “online” outside traditional working hours. The Centre for Future Work estimates that the average Australian works eight hours of unpaid overtime weekly – the equivalent of A$106 billion in unpaid yearly wages.

In the accounting profession, there is an implied commitment to quality and integrity. As one of the most trusted professions in Australia, clients, shareholders and the government demand a certain level of, and commitment to, service.

For most, this means working until the job is done, whether that’s working beyond 9 to 5 or over the weekend. In the short term, this can be fine; however, over a prolonged period it can have more serious health consequences.

Stress and fatigue can impact us, and sometimes without warning. Being overworked can lead to burnout, as well as having many other negative implications for the wellbeing of you, your co-workers and your family. It is worth taking a pause from time to time to reflect on your physical and mental health, relationships, and to refamiliarise yourself with your employer’s wellness program.

“It is worth taking a pause from time to time to reflect on your physical and mental health, relationships, and to refamiliarise yourself with your employer’s wellness program.” Hamish Smith

Working overtime is often a necessity in the digital age, but working overtime consistently, or being unpaid for the overtime worked is where problems arise. The challenge is finding the right balance between your professional commitment to your work and that of your long-term health and wellbeing.

Resource: Balancing your life: executive lessons for work, family and self eBook

Meet the experts

Emily McCarthy
Emily McCarthy is a lawyer and the head of secondment operations at LOD (Lawyers On Demand), a global legal services firm transforming the way in which lawyers, consultants and legal teams work.

Professor Michael Leiter
Professor Michael Leiter is an organisational psychologist interested in the relationships of people with their work. He is a professor of industrial and organisational psychology at Deakin University’s Faculty of Health.

Hamish Smith
Hamish Smith is manager of the Robert Walters Chatswood finance team covering Sydney’s north shore and northern regions of New South Wales. He manages a team of four, which recruits across all disciplines of finance and accounting from transactional to senior appointments.

Read next: Work-life “balance” is a myth. That doesn’t mean you’re doomed.


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August 2019
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