Discussing overworking and how overtime kills our mental health, we often center on burnout, as it has the greatest impact. But, the work we consider not burnout-worthy, like checking email or finishing up a document in between dinner and quality time with friends or family can actually be just as harmful. And surprisingly, overworking in these minor ways can bring great harm to your coworkers, employer and maybe even the company as a whole, in one way or another.
In this article, you’ll find the less discussed common pitfalls of doing work in your personal time, and how to avoid getting yourself in trouble. Legal, or otherwise.
Table of contents
- Working off the clock
- Overtime laws and regulations
- How overwork brings harm
- How to prevent yourself from overworking
Working off the clock
Researching material for this article, I remembered one of my former jobs, and how much overtime I put in.
My “regular” overtime was covered by a regulated overtime fee. However, sometimes I would leave the office and continue to work at home, not really counting it as overtime. It was either reading some late-arrived feedback, filling out a spreadsheet so there’s less to do in the morning, or checking email.
I considered it small work that didn’t really count as overtime, but rather gave me a head start or wrapped up my daily work from the comfort of my home.
However, did you know that no matter how minute, off-the-clock work can actually do more harm than good – both to your career and the company you work for?
Overtime laws and regulations
When working overtime, you should really stick to the laws as closely as possible.
The FLSA states that any time worked over 40 hours a week counts as overtime, and the employee should be fairly compensated for it (if you are non-exempt from overtime pay). The standard rate is one and a half times the hourly pay.
A vast majority of employers stick to this and take careful steps to clearly state in the contracts how much time they expect you to put in. However, when it comes to employees not being able to unplug and their need to check and send emails, or write drafts because motivation hits them at 10 PM as they watch a show… It becomes a very gray and somewhat legally dangerous area.
Why is it important to limit overtime?
In any industry, overtime can be a very slippery slope, unless it’s regulated.
- Employees get overworked to the point of burnout;
- Employers manipulate contracts or abuse overtime law misinformation;
- Employees modify their timesheets to “steal” company time and get paid more.
To best protect the interests of both parties and the company itself, we need to monitor (and at best, eliminate) off-the-clock work. In this way, everyone avoids drawn-out legal prosecutions and disciplinary actions.
Imagine a scenario where you are the employer, and an employee suddenly comes to you one morning and asks for a resignation. They tell you only then how they’re feeling burnt out because there was too much work on their shoulders. But from what you know, they’ve worked regular overtime hours and went home in a timely manner. Only there on the spot do you find out that they’ve been working in their off-time almost every day, neglecting their family, social life, and health.
All of a sudden, you’re out a great employee, it turns out your work environment is toxic and pressure, and you had no indication of what was going on for months.
Pretty nerve-wracking, isn’t it?
Oftentimes, we’re unaware of how much our dedication and the desire to “do the right thing” can harm others around us. We’re willing to suffer through burnout, completely blind to the rest of the people working with us.
How overwork brings harm
Aside from leading yourself to a complete burnout due to overworking, there are plenty of other reasons to avoid giving 120% at work when you’re not required to.
If an employer finds out that one of their workers did company-related tasks during their off-work hours, they have full right to ask about it.
We’ve discussed overtime regulation, but what about working after overtime? Can working during your personal time really get you in legal trouble? The answer is both yes and no. The slightly longer answer:
According to FLSA, all employers need to compensate their employees for work received during off-work hours. However, even if they prohibit work during personal time, there is no law stopping the employees from disregarding the rule. In cases like these, section 785.13 states the management has every right to enforce these rules, and even discipline those who break them. To quote verbatim:
“The FLSA does not prohibit employers from implementing a policy or enforcing an existing policy that prohibits unauthorized work, and it does not prohibit employers from disciplining employees for violating the policy.” Source: shrm.org
So, while your employer is still obligated to pay you for finishing that one email or document at midnight unless you’ve asked for authorization for such overtime work, you could receive some reprimand. Nothing to the extent of legal action, but a “slap on the wrist” at best, and resignation at worst.
💡 For more detailed information, you can look at the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations.
Impaired work-life balance
Maybe work starts earlier for you because you decide to check emails and company chat as you drink morning coffee before commuting to the office. Or, you decide to check your email because one of your departments works in a different timezone, so they may have sent something at around 10 PM your time.
Either way, even such small errands in your off-time blur the line between work hours and personal hours.
It’s crucial knowing when to leave the office, and how to leave work at the office as you head home.
If this border between your career and life isn’t clear, you can easily slip into a constant work mode, until it becomes impossible to unplug.
Overworking gives the impression you’re always available
One interesting piece of advice I got from a team lead in a former company was: “Never bend over backwards for your job. Otherwise, they’ll see how far you’re willing to push yourself, and they’ll keep asking more”.
Now, while this advice held particularly true in that company, as I later came to realize, I should make a caveat that not all companies are this opportunistic. Most will recognize the effort and reward it accordingly.
But, in my case, I used to work on some tasks from home during a project, until late at night, for weeks. And at the time it didn’t bother me, I was younger and could pull off less sleep, and the work was fun. Little did I know that, on the other side, unaware of my overtime, team leads believed all that stellar work was done during my regular hours.
Suddenly, with every new project, the same level of quality and effort was expected. It locked me into a perpetual state of overworking to meet wrongly set expectations.
Other examples of how overworking sets high expectations
- Reinforcing the “always on” mentality
Working in addition to overtime, you get everyone around used to the fact that you’re available. Coworkers and team leads or managers know they can get a hold of you whenever they need you. Hence you can expect more off-work emails, texts, or calls that are suddenly urgent.
- Setting a standard for everyone else
Japan’s former infamous practice in the knowledge economy was that no employee was allowed to leave work before the boss does. While it’s a dying practice, and worker protection laws were implemented in 2018 and 2019, the workers are still fighting the stigma that lingers on.
In much the same way, some overtimers may be unaware of the pressure they are setting for the others. Even I, as a new arrival at my former company, used to stick around the office longer, because I saw some senior employees still at the office even at 6 PM. It felt embarrassing to leave, even though I was exhausted.
- It makes managers think that everything CAN be done
When we decide to work in our off-hours, it sets a dangerous precedent that there is no limit to how much energy we will squeeze out to see a project to the end. While it is at times necessary, there’s a moment where overworking becomes the norm every time a deadline is at risk. They get used to you giving your all, and rely on that self-sacrifice.
And there is also a slight chance they will pretend like they don’t know or see how hard you work outside overtime, so they don’t have to compensate you for it.
Overworking brings a greater risk of micromanagement
If they can’t afford to have employees working overtime constantly, then employers can establish a rule prohibiting them from working over 40 hours per week. And managers are there to enforce the rule. If enough people disregard this, then there’s an increased chance they’ll start micromanaging everyone.
This includes overly detailed timesheets, monitoring software, daily reports, etc.
Employers being forced to pay for overtime when they are unable to
Employers can also ask their employees not to work over 40 hours per week simply because they cannot afford to pay them the rates required. This especially holds true for small and starting businesses.
So unless you get previous approval, working overtime risks the employer facing inspection or charges, should the word get out. Sometimes, even the best intentions can get us in trouble.
How to prevent yourself from overworking
Here are some short tips on how to get your own off-work hours under control, but also check if your employer is trying to abuse that goodwill for their own benefit.
Check your contract
Under FLSA, every contract needs to state how many hours you are expected to work if overtime is mandatory or not, alongside holidays, minimum wage, compensatory time, etc.
Each stipulation needs to be carefully examined. Look for a clause that mentions off-work hours and the company’s stance on it. If there is none, ask around in your HR department, or upper management.
Let them know you have the habit of doing work during off-hours, and ask how you can regulate that together.
If you have no contract
Firstly, check for any and all mentions of your work hours. Whether it’s through emails, messages, reports, or notes taken during meetings.
Secondly, ask your employer for a written statement or a contract, to clearly define your regular and overtime hours. Protect yourself and your wage with a “paper trail”, no matter what kind of work you do – part-time, seasonal, even one-time help.
Track your work hours
If you have the habit of accidentally slipping into overtime because you’ve reached “the zone”, your best bet is to track overtime.
The moment you hit those 8 hours for the day, start into overtime (if you’re allowed or mandated) with a mindful attitude. And keep tracking time for a multitude of reasons. Take note of what tasks you did during that time, how long they lasted, and when you clocked out. Then, when you give your employer the information, they’ll have a better understanding of where your time goes. What’s more, together you can find ways to mitigate the amount of overtime or off-work hours, so there is no legal issue for either of you.
Set up an end-of-workday ritual
At the end of your overtime, you can wind down the work and signal to your brain it’s time to go home by taking on smaller tasks. Some examples include:
- Finding a “buddy” with whom you can leave work at the same time as they do, and have a chat as you walk down the building, or commute together;
- Make a to-do list with everything you need to catch up on tomorrow, instead of finishing that work now – ignore the age-old proverb: “If you can do it today, don’t leave it for tomorrow.” There’s plenty of things you can do today, and yet you shouldn’t.
- Clean up your desk, throw away garbage, wash your cups or mugs, etc.
- Set up an end-of-workday playlist to listen to when you enter the last stages of overtime.
These were just some of the examples, but you can probably find some that are more suited for you, which reflect your workflow more accurately.
Working excessive overtime, or even longer after it has numerous consequences. And as much as we discuss burnout as the main one, downsides like disciplinary action, setting unrealistic standards, or setting yourself up for more and more work until you’re too swamped to handle anything.
The best course of action is to make do with the time you have at your disposal. Find ways to get better at time management, track your time, exercise restraint when wanting to check your messages and emails, and set up some rituals for leaving work, so your brain knows you’re done for the day. Lastly, always ask whether or not it’s okay to work off-hours, with arguments as to why it’s necessary.
Had any experience with overworking? Or do you know someone who got into trouble for it? There are also plenty of stories about employers skirting the line of overtime when it comes to fair pay, so if you have any you would like to share with us and our readership, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.