A man at a desk in a dark office covering his face in frustration. He is overworking and feeling burnt out.
Image: © Alina/Stock.adobe.com

Two-thirds of UK employees are overworking by six hours per week

16 Apr 2019

A recent study shows 66pc of UK employees are overworking by an average of 6.3 hours per week.

The topic of overworking has once again hit headlines after Alibaba founder Jack Ma spoke out in support of the Chinese work practice known as 996 – that is working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. Ma said the ability to work six 12-hour days should be considered “blessing”. Unsurprisingly, his comments have come under intense scrutiny.

Despite the bogus idea certain people like to peddle that ‘if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life’, overworking has been proven to be detrimental to your health whether you love it or not. Your body needs rest and time to recuperate. Your brain needs time to reset. I believe the 996 system is far above what anyone should be working, and is dangerous in the long term.

While the 996 system is an extreme display of overworking, there are plenty of workers all over the world who are seemingly working normal, 40-hour weeks but are still guilty of overworking, staying late and giving more time to their companies than they are getting paid for.

When you’re a salaried employee, you may notice less how much free labour you’re giving away. A few minutes here, a half hour there – it’s not always worth counting in your head. But when you’re paid to work a certain number of hours and you don’t get anything extra to work overtime, any additional hours you give essentially mean you’re working for free. And they can really add up.

A recent study from ADP has found that two-thirds of UK employees are overworking by an average of 6.3 hours per week. Startlingly, the report, which surveyed more than 1,400 UK employees, found that more than one in five admitted to putting in 10 hours of unpaid work in a week. For an average 40-hour week, those employees are giving an extra 25pc in hours for free.

It’s not just about the hours workers put in, either. It’s also about the hours they take off – or rather, don’t take off. Research from Glassdoor last year showed that only 43pc of UK employees took their full or close to their full annual leave. More than 10pc of employees surveyed admitted to only taking one-fifth or less of their holiday entitlements. The average employee only took 62pc of their annual leave.

The Glassdoor research also found that almost a quarter of those on holiday regularly checked their emails, while 20pc of employees surveyed said they were actually expected to be reachable and available for work if necessary.

The frightening figures keep coming, too. Overworking can lead to increased stress levels, a lack of sleep, a lower immune system and severe burnout.

A Wrike report released in September 2018 surveyed 1,600 US and UK workers and 94pc said they suffer from stress. A quarter of respondents said they will burn out in the next 12 months if they can’t reduce their stress levels and more than half said they have lost sleep due to stress levels.

Fuelling bad culture

While workplace wellbeing and switching off have become more topical in recent years, it seems we still have a long way to go when it comes to overworking. Despite some positive moves towards disconnecting from work, promoting healthier work cultures and improving communication with staff around the world, there are still plenty of bad practices in place.

Last August, DingTalk, Alibaba’s workplace communication software, faced serious backlash from Chinese workers for fuelling a toxic work culture. According to Reuters, the app lets senders see if messages have been read, but also has a ‘ding’ feature that can inundate recipients with notifications and messages. The app also has a clock-in system to monitor the whereabouts of employees.

While many companies want to be seen as promoting their workers’ wellbeing, it remains to be seen whether or not we’re really moving in the right direction.

In the tech sector in particular, burnout has become an epidemic. A survey from workplace community site Blind found that close to 60pc of tech workers are burnt out, with the top three reasons for this being poor leadership, work overload and a toxic work culture.

Ending the overworking culture

With staff turnover costing companies a lot of money, it makes business sense to work towards retaining the talent you already have. However, it’s also important that all leaders care about their employees’ wellbeing on a basic human level.

Staff can feel when they’re just a number to you. Whether they are burnt out or not, they will not stick around if they don’t feel their leaders care about them. After all, why should they care about your goals and business targets if you don’t care about their health?

The job market is thriving right now, not just in tech but across most sectors. Employees will not stick around for long if they are overworking, experiencing high stress levels at work or being encouraged to be ‘always on’.

In the turbulent battle for top talent, the winning companies will be the ones that really value their employees’ wellbeing. They will be the ones that will not ignore bad practices within working cultures and run in the other direction. They will see stats that say two-thirds of employees are overworking and they will introduce or strengthen policies to ensure their own workers don’t fall into that category.

The point of highlighting these statistics is not to simply shock you over a cup of coffee before going about the rest of your day. As an employee, it’s time to sit up and check yourself to make sure you’re not giving your company more than you should be. As a leader, it’s time to examine your own practices and behaviours to ensure you’re not part of the problem.

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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