Unpaid overtime is a reality for much of working Britain, but is it a fact of life or a sign of a deficiency within businesses that rely on it?

In this guide, we’ll explore just how common unpaid overtime is and the legalities of the practice, as well as perceived benefits and potential drawbacks for business that rely on it.

How common is unpaid overtime?

‘There’s not enough hours in the day’ is a common complaint, but is relying on unpaid overtime healthy for businesses and employers?

A plethora of research has been carried out on the subject and for better or worse, the practice is rife among UK businesses.

Earlier in the year, a study by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that Brits were undertaking so much free overtime that they effectively worked the first eight weeks of the year without pay - handing upwards of £33 billion in free labour to their employers. 

Similarly, a survey of 2,000 workers by TotallyMoney in February this year found the practice to be rife, with some highlights including:

  • Respondents put in an average of 8.4 hours of overtime per week, with almost 65 per cent doing so without receiving pay
  • The most common reason given for working overtime was having an excessive workload
  • Only a third of those surveyed said they usually leave work on time
  • Four out of five claimed they work through their lunch break every day
  • Just under 60 per cent felt that they didn’t have an adequate work/life balance 

Unpaid overtime also afflicts some sectors worse than others, with some of the worst industries including:

  • Education (6.2 hours a week)
  • Engineering (6.2 hours a week)
  • Hospitality (6.1 hours a week)
  • IT and tech (5.6 hours a week)
  • Marketing/media/creative (5.1 hours a week)

The legalities

We’ve established that the practice of unpaid overtime is common, but is it legal? In short, yes - within reason.

The Working Time Regulations (1998) cover the amount of time a worker can put in each week, which, unless they choose to opt out, is limited to a maximum of 48 hours. Therefore, if your core hours, plus overtime, exceed this - your employer will be in breach of the law.

Whether you’re required to do overtime (and how much you’re required to do) is set out in your contract of employment - with many including a provision that overtime will be required from time-to-time in order to meet the reasonable requirements of the business.

Some employers will opt to pay you for this, while others will offer ‘time off in lieu’ - however - there’s no formal requirement for them to do so.

Both you and your employer will be bound by the terms of your employment contract, so it’s well worth giving it a read to ensure you understand the expectations.

Regulations around minimum wage also impact overtime and when taking unpaid overtime into account, your employer can’t let your average hourly rate fall below minimum wage.

Cultural problems

Few employees would balk at the idea of putting in an extra hour or two when required, but a culture of unpaid overtime can cause serious problems in a workplace if it’s allowed to get out of hand.

Sadly, it’s all too easy for the amount of hours employees put in to become a ‘badge of honour’ that’s valued more than the quality of work they do. While in other workplaces, there’s tacit pressure not to leave before the boss does - for fear of being branded a slacker.

Situations like these obviously put workers with other commitments, such as children or dependents, at an obvious disadvantage and in the worst cases, can breed resentment and a sense of entitlement from those who are putting in extra hours.

Those who need to leave largely on time can also be affected - leading to feelings of guilt and alienation as they’re pushed outside the ‘clique’ of those who regularly work late.

If not managed properly, unpaid overtime can become the de facto rule, rather than the exception, and with no cut-off point - can spiral out of control, with a variety of negative knock-on effects for both employees and the organisation at large.

Quality, not quantity

Businesses want committed employees and how much work they’re willing to put in is a often considered a good barometer of this.

“The difference between a job and a career is the difference between 40 and 60 hours a week,” quipped renowned poet Robert Frost.

Ad-hoc overtime also enables businesses to be flexible when covering absences and ensuring prompt delivery of work when under pressure. And while this agility is commercially desirable, businesses that lean on overtime too often do so at their own peril.

Overworked employees can easily suffer from ‘burn-out’ and fatigue. Depending on the type of work they’re involved in - this can lead to adverse decision making, poor judgement, reduced productivity and a lower quality of work - not to mention the risk of serious injury or even death in certain sectors.

Increased workloads mean more stress for employees, which can cause a range of mental and even physical health problems. Stress-related issues like these are among the leading causes of workplace absences and can, in turn, add to the workloads of already-harried employees.

Over the long term, this trend can result in drastically reduced morale, large amounts of turnover and problems with both retention and recruitment.

Striking a balance

While there’s no silver bullets for tackling the problems associated with unpaid overtime, it’s important for management to set out expectations clearly. If these aren’t articulated properly, there’s a real danger that tacit - and potentially incorrect - assumptions will be made by staff, which can cause or contribute to the problems listed above.

Managers can help things in this regard by ensuring they make a regular effort to leave on time and flexible working practices (where possible) can enable employees to pitch in without being confined to the workplace - as well as being a boon for those with time-sensitive commitments outside of work.

Few employers are so cynical as to use unpaid overtime as a cost-saving measure, and while you shouldn’t be afraid to utilise it as and when needed, it’s important to strike a balance between your immediate commercial needs and the long-term well being and productivity of your employees.

And you?

If you’ve had either positive or negative experiences with unpaid overtime, we want to hear your views! Make sure to reach out on Twitter or LinkedIn.

And if you’re looking for advice on tackling unpaid overtime in your workplace, or support with any other cultural or commercial issues - be sure to book an obligation-free chat with one of the experts from our commercial training team today:

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