Overtime Essay

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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.

Unpaid Overtime

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.

Theoretical Models

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.


  1. 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).
  2. Hart, R. A. The Economics of Overtime Working. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  3. Jacobs, J. A. and K. Gerson. The Time  Divide: Work, Family, and Gender  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

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