Why You’re Killing Yourself Working Overtime and How To Stop

Written by: Cathy Caprino

Throughout my 18-year corporate life, I would find myself staying late in the office more often than not. If I’m brutally honest with myself, I did it for two reasons – to try to stay caught up with what I felt was a massive workload, but also, to show management that I was a very hard worker. One day, a senior vice president who noticed my habitual late hours said, “If you’re staying late so often, Kathy, you’re just not prioritizing and managing your work effectively.” And boy did that make me mad.

At that time, I didn’t see myself as the problem – it was my boss and the never-ending chaos on my plate each day that was the culprit. Today, in coaching emerging women leaders to build great, rewarding and balanced lives and careers, one of the chief complaints I hear is, “I simply cannot balance my other life priorities with the number of hours I have to work.” It’s truly an epidemic.

To understand how we can turn this around, both in corporate and other workplaces, I caught up with Joe Staples, chief marketing officer at Workfront, a cloud-based Enterprise Work Management solution designed to help enterprise teams—from IT to marketing to company leadership—eliminate the typical chaos of work and gain greater visibility company wide. In his role, Joe focuses on helping teams eliminate the unending chaos of work that kills productivity, drains motivation and stifles creativity.

Kathy Caprino: Joe, how many Americans work overtime, and what are the key reasons for it?

Joe Staples: A recent Gallup poll found that the average American workweek, which has traditionally been 40 hours, now spans more than 47. That means each week on average we end up clocking an entire extra day of work. Salaried workers are hit the hardest, with a full 25% saying they log a grueling 60 hours per week, which equals working 12-hour days from Monday to Friday, or slightly shorter weekdays with much of the weekend also on the clock.

What makes today’s workplace successful, however, is not the total number of hours worked: instead, it’s about getting the job done. That means there are days when 10 hours are required. There are also other times with 7 hours are all that is needed. The problem is that many companies focus only on the “hours worked” component, and that’s not the best metric for productivity.

Still keeping in mind that the focus should be on the work to be accomplished, not the hours worked, this move toward working longer hours has several contributing factors.

1. Employees often believe that working longer hours means they’ll get more done.

2. As managers arrive at the office earlier and depart later each day, their employees will mimic their schedules because they believe working longer hours is necessary to gain approval.

3. Employee-fostered culture often dictates that those who work longer hours are going to be promoted more quickly for “working harder.”

4. Employers do not effectively communicate work-life expectations, so employees default to prioritizing work over life outside.

5. Finally, managers don’t have complete visibility into each employee’s workloads, so they continue assigning additional work without considering existing projects and responsibilities.

Caprino: What do employees feel about this overtime work and how is it actually counter-productive?

Staples: I think 20 or 30 years ago, work was much more time-driven. People were expected to arrive at 8 am and felt free to leave right at 5 pm. Any request to “stay late” was viewed as an imposition – as if the employer was encroaching on the employee’s personal time. Nowadays, however, the attitude has changed. Schedules are more flexible and employees are required to get their work done and hit reasonably set deadlines – not to simply punch an imaginary clock. What that has done, however, is made long hours the norm for some. And for some industries – such as finance, tech or marketing – overtime is almost seen as a badge of honor. If you aren’t pulling 60-, 70- or 80-hour weeks, you aren’t considered to be working hard enough and you could be replaced by someone else who will.

Of course, loads of research has proven – beyond a doubt – that excessive overtime does not, in and of itself, increase productivity. The small bump in extra output you might achieve by burning the midnight oil is oftentimes more than offset by your decreased energy for the rest of the week. We all know that the occasional overtime crunch session is necessary to make a deadline or deliver a product on time, but the sustained reliance on excessive employee overtime is really a reflection of poor management and isn’t sustainable by employees.

Companies today need to shift toward flexibility on the part of both the employer and employee. The focus needs to be on getting the work done, not on clocking a certain number of hours.

Caprino: How do some of the top brands in the world – such as Cars.com, Cisco, Comcast, Schneider Electric and Trek – streamline their office work?

Staples: Here’s what we’re seeing:

Managers must have insight into their teams’ bandwidths. They also must collaborate across departments to ensure that resource allocation is optimized – and, specifically, that some employees are not overtasked.

Companies that proactively discuss work-hour policies and expectations with their employees tend to work more efficiently and also avoid burnout. Managers should foster a healthy work environment where asking for help on a project is not seen as a sign of weakness but is instead viewed as a strategic move to best complete the task at hand.

Regular internal communication about workloads can help managers spread tasks across their team so no one feels bogged down by a project.

If the employer needs an employee to work on a Saturday to hit a certain deadline, that’s acceptable because the employee also knows that taking off an afternoon to go see his son play a little league game is also viewed as acceptable. The strict “how many hours are you working” view offers no benefit to either party.

This one sounds obvious, but managers need to better prioritize how their employees spend their working time. A primary problem that is too often overlooked, and in my opinion might qualify as the number one time waster, is meetings. Companies need to view meetings – especially those with more than five to six people – as a last resort. In-person meetings should not be the go-to collaboration tool that they’ve slowly become. We’ve all seen it: a meeting with 10 people that lasts an hour, with each person giving a few minutes of updates while they spend the rest of the time on their phone. Your company just lost 10 hours of work and, more importantly, your employee just lost a sizeable chunk of her day that she could have spent accomplishing real work.

Caprino: What are the top six tips for employers and for individuals, to stop the overtime while increasing productivity.

Staples: Here are tips that we’ve uncovered during the 15 years we’ve spent helping large enterprise companies learn to work more efficiently.

  • Cut down on status meetings
  • Proactively discuss overtime policies and expectations
  • Arm your employees with the tools that help them work efficiently
  • Encourage communication about current workloads, including asking for help if needed
  • Don’t live on your phone: wait to respond to important emails when you are back in the office
  • Focus on getting the job done, not on total hours worked

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