Nearly half of employees in the United States routinely work more than 50 hours a week, often without overtime pay. In New Zealand, careers expert Janet Tuck says many of her clients are also putting in long hours, with 50 plus hours a week not unusual. Long days of graft often have a debilitating effect on employees but there's growing evidence that "free labour" might not be a good deal for employers, either.

Employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour working week and falls off the cliff after 55 hours, with those putting in 70 hours producing nothing more in those extra 15 hours, according to a recent study by John Pencavel of Stanford University. He says long hours are also connected to absenteeism and high employee turnover, and there are ancillary costs to employers such as providing light, heat, ventilation, and supervisory labour during those extra hours.

Tuck says attempts to save costs are a reality of a competitive market, and having fewer employees directly impacts the bottom line. "Long hours are generally not expected when a person takes on a job, however the reality of retrenchment in staff numbers, restructuring, and increasing workloads means that longer hours become necessary to meet job requirements," she explains, and adds that depending on the job, the attraction of overtime pay can be very enticing for those on hourly rates in order to make ends meet.

Tuck is seeing greater numbers of people working at home even when they are on sick leave and in their weekends. This can mean people missing out on family time but, because they have to work long hours to pay the mortgage and the bills, they feel powerless to change their situation. Tuck says it's not unusual to hear, "We feel guilty, but what can we do?" when couples are both working and children are in care.

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Technology is increasingly being seen as a driver of the culture of overwork. David Solomon, global co-head of investment banking at Goldman Sachs, says: "Technology means we're all available 24/7. And because everyone demands instant gratification and instant connectivity, there are no boundaries, no breaks."

Tuck says many workers don't recognise that responding to emails and phone calls out of work hours is actually "doing work", and thinks people would be surprised if they added up the additional hours worked if those activities were included. However, some thrive on the sense of self-importance they feel from working late or on weekends. "There seems to be a link between contactability and self-worth. If a person develops a sense of being needed and valued because of their contribution at work, they are more likely to remain responsive 24/7," says Tuck.

"If we don't take regular time out to recharge our physical and mental batteries there will be health and wellness consequences, with increased stress levels being an obvious one." But she says medical science is identifying all kinds of other consequences in the areas of brain function and physical health.

"Many people who come to see me are worn out mentally and physically. They have often lost perspective and don't know what they want out of life. And this means they are unable to lift themselves above their situations and see new opportunities. Sadly, these are the people who don't follow through with programmes."

Tuck often recognises symptoms of depression and anxiety in her clients and encourages them to seek appropriate help.

"Work, both mental and physical, results in fatigue that limits cognitive and bodily resources,"says Ken Matos of the USA Families and Work Institute. "When people are not thinking clearly or moving as quickly or precisely, they must work more slowly to maintain quality and safety requirements."

"Many people who come to see me are worn out mentally and physically." Janet Tuck, career expert. Photo / Supplied

Among industrial workers, overtime raises the rate of mistakes and safety mishaps; likewise, for knowledge workers fatigue and sleep-deprivation make it hard to perform at a high cognitive level. And the effects are cumulative. A study of Wall St bankers working 100 hours a week showed the bankers starting to break down in their fourth year on the job. They suffered from depression, anxiety and immune-system problems, and performance reviews showed their creativity and judgment declining. Last October, Goldman Sachs told its junior investment-banking analysts to stop working on Saturdays and all its analysts to work no more than 70-75 hours a week on average.

Some employers provide benefits such as lunches, snacks, a gym and childcare, and while this could be seen as encouraging employees to stay longer at work, Tuck says this is not usually the case. "Interestingly, this is more likely to be in new and what we would see as progressive organisations with younger employees. The rationale is that staff are happier in these environments, which is probably true. The organisations generally already expect employees to work overtime, but they have chosen to make it easier to do so. This generates quite a lot of goodwill towards employers, and the environments I have seen are very positive places to work."

Psychotherapist Zoe Krupka says many people who visit her Melbourne practice ask what they can do to manage it all better. "They think there's something wrong with them because they just can't seem to live and work at the same time. We're working longer hours than ever before, and as our employment conditions continue to worsen, they're simply repackaged into a new version of normal in an effort to make the truly pathological state of many of our workplaces appear acceptable."

Krupka says corporate stress management training and the burgeoning multibillion-dollar wellness industry trade on the culture of overwork. "No amount of multivitamins, yoga, meditation, exercise, super foods or extreme time management is going to save us from the effects of too much work," she says. "This is not something we can adapt to. The insidious culture of overwork is deafening and the only way we can really feel better is if we can find a way to make it stop."