The dark side of those extra hours

By Raewyn Court

In an age of rising overtime, loading up staff can cause stress and burnout Raewyn Court

Overtime at the office may get the job done but can impact home life and increase workplace tensions.
Overtime at the office may get the job done but can impact home life and increase workplace tensions.

When carpenter Samuel Parnell arrived in New Zealand in 1840, he was asked by a shipping agent to build a store on Lambton Quay. Parnell agreed, on the condition that he would only work eight hours a day. His rationale: "We have 24 hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleeping, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves."

As there was a severe shortage of skilled workers in New Zealand at the time, he got the job. He later cemented the eight-hour day/40-hour week for all workers, with anyone accepting less favourable working conditions being thrown into the harbour.

Despite Parnell's crusade for a better work/life balance for all New Zealanders, we have returned to the bad old days. The 2013 Census reveals more than a million Kiwis work between 41 and 80 hours a week and, according to the 2014 Hays Salary Guide, one in three employers report their employees are clocking up increasing amounts of overtime.

Of those employers who have seen levels rise, 33 per cent said overtime had risen by 5 to 10 hours a week, and a further 35 per cent reported that overtime was up by more than 10 hours a week. More than half of the employers surveyed said overtime was unpaid in their organisation.

"This supports an emerging trend that we're seeing across the jobs market; the desire from employers to do more with less," says Jason Walker, managing director of Hays in New Zealand. "When we surveyed employers as part of our Hays Salary Guide, a massive 79 per cent said they expect their levels of business activity to increase in the year ahead, and a similar number have already seen an increase in business activity."

Walker says that to cope with this increase, many employers up the workloads of existing staff. But he noted that pressure to increase productivity without increasing headcount has the potential to cause workplace stress and employee burnout, "which will cost a lot more in the long run".

"There could be a very good business case for adding permanent headcount or using a temporary staffing solution instead," he says. "We advise employers to monitor absenteeism and attrition rates so they're aware of what overtime really costs."

About a year after starting her job, Kate (not her real name) began to notice her workload increase and found she couldn't finish her work within normal hours. She stayed late until, as a salaried worker, she was working one to two hours of unpaid overtime every day.

"I wasn't asked to stay late to get things finished," she says. "But I felt it was my responsibility to get my work done and meet my deadlines."

Kate says that because she took it upon herself to work the longer hours she didn't feel resentful towards her employer, but resentment did come from family members. "It created a few arguments when I was getting home after 7pm most nights," she says. "And that was giving me more stress than the job stress!"

Kate admits she became exhausted from working the longer hours. "My employers noticed I was regularly staying late. My boss became concerned, and tried to encourage me to leave on time."

Kate feels fortunate her employers looked at ways to reduce her workload. "We looked at efficiency of process flows and reallocation of some work, and I'm not working as much overtime as before. It's come down to between 30 minutes and one hour a day now, and we're looking at reducing this to 30 minutes in the near future," she says.

To manage employee engagement during periods of increased overtime, Hays has these tips for employers:

• Actively monitor the amount of overtime being performed and by which team members.

• Monitor absenteeism and general employee wellbeing.

• Consider adding permanent headcount to increase productivity and reduce the risk of existing employees leaving, or use temporary staff to relieve pressure on overtime hot spots.

• Encourage managers to use regular feedback and both paid and unpaid rewards to recognise those putting in the extra time.

• Monitor business activity so staff can be given time off in lieu where possible.

- NZ Herald

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