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A growing number of people work long hours. In studies of work time, long work hours and overtime have often been used interchangeably. Although these concepts are interrelated, they do not have exactly the same meaning. Work hours exceeding a full-time workweek is most correctly referred to as long or prolonged work hours, whereas overtime refers to work hours exceeding the number of contracted work hours. A full-time workweek in terms of the number of work hours varies across work sectors, industries, and nations. Full-time work falls within the range of 37.5 to 45 hours per week. Some studies set the limit at more than 45 hours a week, whereas other studies set the limit at 48-hour or longer shifts for long work hours. Still others talk about extended work shifts in terms of approximately 12 hours a day. Long work hours always indicate the occurrence of overtime work. However, the occurrence of overtime is not always indicative of long work hours. For instance, employees working part-time may work overtime without necessarily working long hours.
Research has primarily focused on the effects of overtime on a number of health-related outcomes among full-time workers because this group of employees have been thought to put too much effort into their work, in addition to not having the time necessary to recover. However, it has recently been suggested that the scope of this research should be expanded to incorporate systematic studies of part-time workers because they may be engaged in several occupations and include vulnerable groups like older people, pregnant women, and employees with chronic illnesses. The topic of overtime and long work hours is of paramount concern to legislators and policy makers because it brings up considerations about different types of hazards for the individual, family, employer organization, and society.
Many employees report that they work unpaid overtime. Overtime work primarily occurs because there exists uncertainty concerning work task completion times. This mainly holds true for complex work tasks. Unpaid overtime is also inversely related to employee productivity. Specifically, workers compete in a free labor market, and to make themselves more attractive to potential employers, they may win the competition or auction by overbidding (i.e., by saying that they need less time to complete a certain task than a rival worker). A third explanation targets intrinsic motivation and delay in rewards in expectation of future larger rewards among certain groups, like managers and academic professionals. For instance, a manager may work unpaid overtime to fill in for employees on sick leave or to avoid loss of reputation by meeting a certain deadline, or a university lecturer may spend unpaid overtime in authoring books and research articles in expectation of a future reward, such as tenure. Moreover, unpaid overtime is more common among less unionized workforces.
Effects Of Overtime And Long Work Hours
The effects of hours of work on employee health have been summarized in several reviews. Research in this area has produced mixed results. Some studies report positive associations between working overtime (in terms of long work hours) and employee health, whereas others do not indicate such effects. Moreover, the risks and effects are not confined to employee health and safety (e.g., stress, sleep quality, alcohol and drug abuse, injuries at work, and cardiovascular outcomes), but they also pertain to family issues (e.g., divorce, poor child rearing, less time for household work, and less time for taking care of older persons in the extended family), the employer organization (e.g., lowered productivity and diminished quality of work), and the society or the community (e.g., health care insurance costs, lack of participation in societal activities due to shortage of time outside the job, harm to clients because of work-related errors, and traffic accidents caused by fatigue).
Researchers argue that many factors may potentially interact with work hours to influence individual health and safety risks, as well as risks at the family, employer organization, and community levels. Number of work hours is only one dimension of work schedules. Other dimensions are total work time versus length of work shift, time of work (i.e., day, evening, or night shifts), shift rotation, length and availability of recovery periods (e.g., time between shifts, rest breaks during one single shift, and length of vacation), flexibility and work schedule control (i.e., to what extent there is room for changes in the work schedule), and predictability. Besides the potential effects of other dimensions of work schedules, the effects of overtime and long work hours may also be reduced or amplified because of an employee’s situation in terms of age, gender, health status, coping styles, and sleep needs. Furthermore, the effects of long work hours on health-related outcomes may be moderated by various job characteristics and factors pertaining to the organization’s culture.
A number of theoretical models have been advanced in the literature to explain the relationship between employee well-being (or lack thereof) and job demands leading to overtime. According to the effort recovery model, any type of effort investment on behalf of the employee has productivity benefits of various sorts. However, all effort investments (i.e., performing work tasks) entail physical and psychological costs for the individual. These effects are reversible to the extent that recovery occurs. Recovery may occur during the course of the working shift and/or after work. It is the combination of continued exposure to workload and lack of recovery that may cause adverse and irreversible health effects. Prolonged effort investment (working long hours or overtime) potentially decreases the time for recovery, as well as its quality, because of spillover effects, and this mostly occurs in jobs with high demands.
In a similar vein, the demand-control model posits that factors enabling the employee to exert job control reduce the adverse effects of organizational demands/stressors (e.g., mandatory overtime). Thus, according to this model, whether overtime gives rise to occupational stress or not depends not only on how demanding a job is but also on how much control (or decision latitude) the employee has over his or her work tasks. A fit between the number and nature of the demands for which overtime work is performed and the employee’s level of decision-making authority reduces the possible adverse effects of prolonged work hours on health.
Priorities And Recommendations
The scientific study of overtime and long work hours is more complex than is often acknowledged. Increasing workloads, job insecurity in times of economic turmoil, and the fading boundary between work and home have made overtime work more common in today’s societies. The core issue in discussions of overtime and long work hours is that they can lead to fatigue and drowsiness, which may affect work performance adversely in terms of error rates and exposure to health and safety risks for the individual worker, as well as for colleagues, family members, clients, and the community. Overtime may cause fatigue particularly when high job demands are combined with low worker autonomy, when overtime is mandatory and unrewarded, and when insufficient recovery opportunities exist (i.e., when the individual works for more than 60 hours a week). Overtime policies should therefore target minimization of long-term fatigue (and burnout), maximization of opportunities for recovery, job control, and fair rewards for overtime work.
The adverse effects of overtime and long work hours should also be considered in the wider context of the psychosocial work environment and job design. For instance, the effects of overtime, whether on the individual’s health or the quality of output, may be tempered by designing active jobs in which high demands are combined with high control (i.e., high skill discretion and decision latitude). Thus, flexible time arrangements in jobs with high decision latitude is a good way to effectively manage overtime work while maintaining quality of work performance and good health. Should overtime be mandatory, instead of assigned randomly, managers could start by asking if there are any volunteers for overtime. Should all workers have to work overtime, they should be offered the opportunity to choose, as much as possible, the days they wish to work.
Work schedules for occupations involving public safety, such as transportation, health care, and law enforcement, should be given special attention because errors from overtime and fatigue may have fatal consequences. Moreover, moonlighting is important because the concept of overtime (usually related to a contract and one employer) may not capture this phenomenon. Yet it may have a considerable impact on a variety of outcomes at the individual, organizational, family, and societal levels.
- Caruso, C. C., T. Bushnell, D. Eggerth, A. Heitmann, B. Kojola, K. Newman, R. R. Rosa, S. L. Sauter, and B. Vila. “Long Working Hours, Safety, and Health: Toward a National Research Agenda.” American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 49 (2006).
- Hart, R. A. The Economics of Overtime Working. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- Jacobs, J. A. and K. Gerson. The Time Divide: Work, Family, and Gender Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.