According to new research, doing lots of overtime isn’t good for you – or your career.
Our culture places a huge amount of value on hard work. Conversations with friends often devolve into competitive discussions about how busy, overworked and exhausted we are, and it’s near-impossible to scroll through Instagram without being exhorted to “rise and grind”, “keep hustling” or “work hard, play hard”.
When it comes to the workplace, meanwhile, it’s easy to assume that the only way to get noticed – not to mention keep on top of your never-ending to-do list – is to keep grafting harder and harder, and putting in longer and longer hours. UK workers did a total of two billions hours of unpaid overtime in 2017, according to research by the TUC (Trades Union Congress), giving their employers £31.2 billion of free labour. For women in high-pressured jobs, taking on extra projects and staying late in the office can feel like just part and parcel of what you signed up for.
But according to a recent study by researchers at London’s City University, regularly putting in too much effort at work could have serious repercussions for your wellbeing and your professional performance – meaning that it could be better, sometimes, to just cut yourself some slack.
Researchers Argyro Avgoustaki and Hans Frankfort looked at two different kinds of “work effort” for their study: overtime work and work intensity (the amount of physical and/or mental exertion we put into work tasks). To conduct their research, they analysed data from more than 50,000 employees working in all available industries across 36 European countries, including the UK.
They found that both overtime and work intensity were associated with stress, fatigue and decreased job satisfaction. Both forms of work effort were also linked to reduced levels of perceived career prospects, job security and recognition, suggesting that employees felt their hard work and additional hours weren’t even noticed.
Read more: Lucy Mangan on why overtime has to stop
Interestingly, the study notes that people working in office-based “white collar” jobs are more likely than manual “blue collar” workers to believe that overtime work is a sign of how valuable they are as an employee.
In addition, people in high-skilled professions often feel like they work overtime by choice: they say they stay late in the office of their own volition, rather than because they’ve been ordered to by their employer.
However, Avgoustaki and Frankfort conclude that putting in lots of overtime could actually decrease the quality of your work, something that could lead to “inferior career-related outcomes” in the long run. In other words, you might actually do a better job – and impress your boss more – if you left work on time every once in a while.
Of course, we’re not suggesting that everyone start slacking off, and there’s nothing wrong with staying late every once in a while if you have an important report to finish or a sudden work-related crisis to deal with.
But if you’re regularly working yourself into the ground when you don’t absolutely have to, try being kinder to yourself. Make an effort to leave the office on time, and remember that not everything on your to-do list has to be done today. In the words of Serena Williams: “There’s always tomorrow.”
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