Years ago, working exactly 40 hours per week – 9 to 5, Monday through Friday – was standard for most office employees. Although this schedule is still somewhat common today, some employees are increasingly logging far more work time – sometimes 50 or more hours per week.
While some business owners may appreciate the dedication, there are significant downsides of maintaining that kind of schedule. Fortunately, there are some solutions that employers can easily implement to prevent employees from becoming overworked.
The average full-time employee works about 44 hours per week, according to a 2021 Gallup survey, which also found that roughly 41% of employees work 45 or more hours a week.
A different 2021 survey from ADP uncovered that employees work, on average, nearly nine unpaid hours of overtime every week. Remote and hybrid employees were found to clock even more, at 9.4 and 9.8 hours of unpaid overtime, respectively. That would take them close to a 50-hour workweek. [Read related article: Overtime Pay and What It Means for Your Workers]
These additional hours may be spread out over the course of a typical workweek, such as five 10-hour days. Or, staffers might come in on a sixth day or spend time at night doing additional tasks.
According to the ADP study, the average employee was accumulating 4.1 hours of unpaid overtime per week before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, more employees are now working more hours overall and off the clock. Here are a few factors contributing to this issue:
ADP pointed to the rise of remote and hybrid employees as a significant contributor to increased work hours. Working from home can easily blur the lines between employees’ work and personal lives, causing these staffers to dedicate more time to work-related activities than they would if they were in an office for a set number of hours.
Research from Indeed found that 61% of remote employees are having a harder time disconnecting from work than they did before the pandemic. Only 6% of survey respondents who work remotely said they never check emails outside of work hours; that means the vast majority of workers are never truly logging off.
The Indeed survey also showed why people are struggling to disconnect from their jobs. Almost 60% of employees who work from home said some combination of managers and clients makes them feel pressured to work more hours. Survey respondents who work on-site said their reason was slightly different from their remote colleagues’, with 43% saying their pressure was self-imposed.
Based on its own research, CNBC reported that 50% of employees are working at understaffed companies. As businesses try to maintain high performance levels despite staffing shortages, existing employees are forced to take on responsibilities across multiple positions. This issue has led some staffers to work more hours to complete not only their own tasks but also those that would usually go to other team members.
Employees have been working more hours since the onset of the pandemic, partly because they’re working from home.
There are only so many hours in a day, but to keep up with the demands and pressure their jobs can bring, employees are finding ways to cram more working hours into their schedules. For example, ADP’s study found that lunch breaks have taken a hit in employees’ efforts to get more done during the workday. Instead of taking an hour away from their desks for a break from their duties, staffers are giving that time back to their companies by working through it.
Employees are also allocating other personal time to work tasks. ADP reported that 68% of U.S. employees take on extra hours of work for free. Less than a year into the pandemic, staffing firm Robert Half found that “employees are working around the clock while at home,” with survey participants working more than eight hours a day and on weekends.
Just because employees can work 24/7 doesn’t mean they want to or should. In addition to having a major impact on work-life balance, here are some of the ways excessive overtime hours are affecting employees.
Overwork can reduce productivity. Instead of getting more done, employees accomplish less, and that work is often lower-quality. In fact, some workers may rack up extra hours not because they’re completing more assignments but because they’re struggling to get even their typical amount of work done. [Learn more about how undue stress can decrease productivity.]
The Indeed survey found that 52% of employees feel burned out and 67% think the issue has worsened over the past two years. Again, remote employees are experiencing the brunt of the problem; 38% of these workers said their burnout has intensified during COVID-19. In-office workers aren’t exempt from the feeling, though; 28% reported experiencing worse burnout during the pandemic. In addition to harming the employee, burnout can hurt the company by causing an increase in employee turnover.
Working excessively can have physical and emotional consequences. For example, employees may experience an inability to slow down their minds and get to sleep after running full speed during extended work hours. Inadequate sleep can increase irritability, lead to more workplace stress and reduce an employee’s ability to focus.
The stress of overwork can also result in higher production of cortisol, a hormone that can increase the risk of stroke and heart disease. Other people may experience panic and anxiety attacks or gain weight as a result of neglecting exercise and not adhering to proper eating habits. Depression may also indicate that an employee is working too much.
These health issues can end up damaging the business as well; team members may have less energy to fulfill their responsibilities, and some may need more sick days, which, in turn, can further hinder the company’s performance.
Even though understaffing issues and pressure from clients may not go away, there are practical steps businesses can take to help their employees work a healthier schedule.
Companies can give designated lunch breaks and use highly rated employee monitoring software to ensure staffers are taking them. Such tools also can be used to track how much a given individual is working so executives are aware of which team members should be encouraged to take time off.
Managers can try to limit the number of meetings they schedule for employees. Only holding necessary meetings, or combining certain meetings, can cause fewer distractions for employees. This way, they can spend more of their working hours crossing items off their to-do lists. When their shift is done, they can walk away from their desks feeling confident they’ve done a full day’s work.
Employees may work longer hours because of the expectations placed on them and the procedures they’re told to follow. Evaluating duties and processes may lead companies to discover inefficiencies that, if fixed, would not only lighten workloads but also boost performance.
Businesses can reorganize departments, redefine roles and roll out new protocols to make sure the workplace is functioning in a healthy way that doesn’t require employees to work more than 40 hours a week. The number of hours worked needn’t be a measure of someone’s accomplishments; some staffers are perfectly capable of completing a robust workload in less time simply because they’re more efficient.
Organizations should make wellness a priority for in-person and remote team members. An employee health and wellness plan can include benefits that boost physical and mental health, and an employee assistance program can aid workers by providing services that help them better manage their professional and personal obligations. These perks can have the bonus effect of improving retention rates.
It’s up to employers to let their workers know it’s OK to disconnect. Businesses can even go as far as disabling email access during nighttime hours and approved time off. Encouraging employees to step away from their desks and computers once their shifts are complete can help them establish a healthier work-life balance.
If organizations want to empower managers and employees to do their best work, they may need to encourage them to spend less time working.
As detailed last year by Alda and Autonomy, the Icelandic government held a four-year experiment (2017-2021) to determine the effects of working fewer hours. The study proved that workers were either equally or more productive when they worked 35 to 36 hours a week compared with when they worked more than 40 hours per week. In fact, the trials revealed a host of positive impacts, including greater work-life balance and increased participation in home life.
Some people genuinely love their job and can work 12-hour days without experiencing ill effects. But for others, the tight grip of work can bring negativity that spreads at home and in the office. Setting clear boundaries around the workday, whether for remote or in-office employees, can help everyone be more fulfilled at work and beyond. A stress-free work environment pays off for all.
Adam Uzialko contributed to the writing and research in this article.