Hidden overtime: women share how longer working hours during the pandemic has impacted their wellbeing

The hidden overtime epidemic: we asked women what working longer hours than ever really feels like

Stylist asked women how they’re being affected by the “hidden overtime epidemic” that’s been blurring the boundaries between work and home for the past 18 months. This is how they responded. 

Emails at the weekend, taking quick calls before dinner and endless Slack notifications dinging well into evening: all of these small behaviours have become the norm since we started working from home 18 months ago. But are they more damaging to our wellbeing than we realise?

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A new report from think tank Autonomy has revealed a “hidden overtime epidemic” that has been worsened by working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The fact that we are able to send and receive messages, emails, and online content twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week means that it is increasingly hard to disconnect, enjoy our leisure time and develop a healthy work-life balance,” the report states. “This has created an epidemic of ‘hidden overtime’, where workers never quite ‘switch off’ and continue to do bits of work throughout the evening and weekend.”

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Indeed, working from home has blurred the boundaries, with increasingly detrimental effects on our health and wellbeing.

According to a survey of 2,000 workers by Linkedin and the Mental Health Foundation cited in the report, it was found that a loss of boundaries between work and home life and additional job-based pressures have meant those working from home are working on average 28 hours extra a month. 

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The report also addressed a “gendered burnout,” finding 65% of women whose working week increased beyond a standard 37.5-40 hours and who also engaged in active childcare during April at a rate greater than or equal to the UK average of 80 minutes a day, reported levels of mental distress.

So we asked women to share their experiences of hidden overtime, and their response was overwhelming.

How women are affected by the “hidden overtime epidemic”

Amy Louise, stylist

“I remember when the first lockdown hit and the sheer panic for my business. I was in the wedding industry and suddenly my year of bookings were no more.

I decided that I couldn’t leave the passion I had for my business behind, and chose to run some courses to help others in the wedding industry during this difficult time. The only problem being lockdown meant no childcare. I have a five-year-old son and my 16-year-old step daughter was living with us at the time.

We all came up with a schedule where I had around two hours in the day to cram my work in, then my husband would take over childcare at 5.30pm and I’d get back to my work until I went to sleep. I was exhausted and my mental health struggled.

A similar pattern emerged over the further lockdowns and so the last year or so has really taken its toll on me. As someone who has struggled with their mental health over the years, I need a lot of ‘me’ time as one of my coping mechanisms. There was no such thing as ‘me’ time during the pandemic.

Slowly we’re getting back to a normal state and I’ve learnt that night-time working isn’t for me. A good thing to come out of the pandemic is I know how and how I shouldn’t work, and what I need to protect my mental health.”

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Vaishali, branding and marketing director 

“I decided quickly to take this lockdown time to keep myself and my business visible. I wanted to be strong and not bury my head in the sand. So I worked longer hours, took on two new team members, and had to onboard them remotely, taking additional time to make them feel involved and part of the team.

Connecting with family is what has become increasingly important to me. Having not seen my father or brother for 20 months as they live overseas and my mother for six months, I have really missed family time. 

The pandemic has certainly given me a greater appreciation for my family and made me realise how important they are to the quality of my life. With that in mind, I have decided to now spend more time in Dubai, where most of my close family live. It’s exciting and a little scary to go somewhere completely new.”

Sara, content manager

“Because I started my job during the pandemic, in October 2020, I don’t have a before and after view of what overtime was like. But I definitely found that starting a new job brought much more pressure to take on overtime and do more work. Not only do you have that desire to prove yourself, at home it’s also too easy to stay online late and put in extra time to get ahead. But the problem with that is people come to expect it from you, so now even months in I’m still expected to do it more often. And the extra work is often invisible. At an office you’d have someone saying, “Oh, you’re having a long day” but at home, it’s just your little green light staying on but no one is really checking.”

Katie, teacher

“Working longer hours isn’t just a pandemic issue for most teachers – I usually work 50-60 hours a week when I’m paid for 32. But lockdown definitely made it worse, balancing lesson planning, marking and online classes with looking after the key worker and vulnerable children that were physically in school.

The government’s first announcement that schools were closing and work would go online was made late in the evening, so overnight we were expected to make it happen. Throughout lockdown, and even still now, we’ve worked through the night on multiple occasions to try and get everything together.”

Leyla, CEO

“I run my own microbusiness which focuses on practical work-based training centred on mental health support and anti-racist practice. During the first lockdown in March 2020, all my work disappeared overnight. I had so many speaking engagements and events booked in, which was heartbreaking to see disappearing. However, following the June 2020 Black Lives Matter movement it’s been non-stop. Prior to the pandemic, all the training I did was face-to-face. It was busy, but not like it is now. 

Now it’s up to two or three sessions a day, with no real down time in between. Whereas I used to be able to catch-up with emails and admin during a commute or at a hotel. As a result of not having this time I now work most weekends catching-up and making sure clients receive everything they need. There is no space for breaks in the day, as it’s video session to video session. I feel super grateful, but have had to ensure my lunch breaks are at a set time to walk away from the desk. It’s also been easy to keep working as there’s not been much else to do. This has been an issue for so many small business owners I know too. It’s also been hard to unwind properly as work is so much on my mind all the time. I now have an office I work from, so it’s better than being at home, but I think the hours do rack up. I have been monitoring my hours over the last month to see where my time goes and if I can do things in a more efficient way.”

Leah*, finance

“Since working from home, I always have my laptop on the side when I’m eating or watching TV, just in case I get a notification from my team that something needs doing. I’ve had messages at 11pm on a Friday night before. In my industry, long hours are expected but working from home has meant that there’s always an email that needs to be jumped on or a quick video call to take.”

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Francesca, copywriter

“Hidden overtime has definitely become a bigger thing since the pandemic: relentless calls, team catch ups and Zoom meetings. My boyfriend always asks how I get any work done because I never shut up. But I get up before him, work through lunch and often in the evenings. It’s not helped by the fact I freelance and pride myself in being flexible. The trouble is that flexibility often ends up meaning long hours.

Our bosses and clients are used to a certain output now, so what will happen when we can no longer multitask in meetings? Employers will still expect the same productivity levels.”

Claire, website founder

“I have always worked from home and found it best for my family. It means I’ve never had to miss a school drop off or pick up, and I could attend all concerts and parent assemblies. That all changed during lockdown. My partner worked throughout, which meant I was at home with five children day and night. It’s been almost two years now with them having barely any schooling and my business has suffered massively.

To try and overcompensate I have started working longer hours. I often find myself up until midnight, because I can’t think straight when they are all awake. I try to do as much as I can during the day, while entertaining them. Then really get to it once they are all settled for bed.

I have terrible mum guilt, as they are constantly asking “what are we doing today” but there simply isn’t enough time or money to spend every day doing activities.

I’m exhausted and can’t wait for the summer holidays to be over to have some sort of normality again.”

Chloe, business owner

“During the pandemic my ‘working’ hours have changed drastically. In 2019 I worried I was burning out from working full time and trying to juggle childcare with running a home and all that those things entail. My husband works shifts as an emergency dispatcher so, out of necessity, the day-to-day routine generally fell to me to manage. Choosing to leave that lifestyle in search of more balance seemed sensible but little did I know that leaving employment at that time would mean entering an extremely challenging job market in March 2020.

In many ways it was a blessing as I didn’t have to worry about trying to work from home while entertaining two young children; however, I did still have to worry about contributing financially. My husband’s role was increasingly busy as the control room where he works also took on handling Covid calls and referring people for testing. We often barely saw him for weeks at a time.

I launched my own business in May this year, and there has been a massive amount of work involved. It’s been difficult to do quiet work like building my website while looking after my children so I have been keeping the business quite separate from time at home with them. That has meant staying up late into the evening to accomplish everything I needed to to keep moving the business forward.

Working all these extra hours has been tough on me, but also had a knock on effect on my family so I am hopeful that as my husband’s working hours have now returned to normal and the children will be back to school in a few weeks, I am entering a time where I can find a bit more balance and some time for rest.”

Riannon, PR managing director

“Working in PR is always hectic with really long hours and a high level of stress. During the height of the pandemic in early 2021, I was often working 12-hour days and weekends to keep up with workloads. I’ve always been dedicated to my work and hate to let people down. This meant that I would commit myself to achieve the best results for clients even if I was burnt out, exhausted and in need of a change.

Although at the time it was one of the most stressful experiences and I even experienced a couple of panic attacks, it made me take a leap of faith and change my career. I decided my mental health and happiness needed to be prioritised. With some encouragement from loved ones, I decided to quit my job and start my own PR and communications agency, Serotonin which is a company that prioritises mental wellness and happiness.

I think many people will be giving their companies the benefit of the doubt because of the pandemic. As we’ve all been experiencing unprecedented times, people may feel they can’t complain about their additional workloads and hours. However, the pandemic isn’t an excuse to let your work negatively affect your mental health. Talk to your manager and if they are still not willing to make a change, there are many other companies that will prioritise your mental health.”

How to get off the hidden overtime hamster-wheel, according to an expert

“The pandemic has transformed the way we work. Many organisations are pursuing hybrid-work scenarios, where employees spend part of their week in office and part working remotely. They need to understand the challenges employees face while also prioritising support for their wellbeing,” Paula Allen, senior vice-president of research and total wellbeing at LifeWorks tells Stylist.

“Female employees are going from one out-of-control situation (pandemic) to another unknown (hybrid work), and employers need to be sensitive to that.”

“Some people have also got caught in the mindset that they are lucky to have a job during these challenging times and feel obligated to work excessive hours – in the long run no one benefits from excessive hours worked. Your work quality will suffer and your wellness will be negatively impacted,” adds career coach Elizabeth Houghton.

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So what advice do they have to help women take action against hidden overtime?

“If after dinner you find yourself reaching for your laptop, be careful. Make a conscious decision about what time you finish work,” says Houghton. “On the same note, make a decision about what time you start in the morning. Just because you don’t have to commute to work, does that mean you should be spending the time working? Instead, have breakfast at the table and get some fresh air in the morning. Do something for yourself before you start work.”

According to Allen, communication is also key. “Communicate clearly with employees; two-way dialogue and empathy are key,” she advises companies and managers. “If you keep wellbeing at the heart of your corporate strategy, you can have a positive impact on your employees’ lives and the business overall.”

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