If you’ve ever worked for a large multinational agency, then this story will sound familiar. 

Early in my career, I worked for a multinational recruitment agency. It had a great reputation and working there was a joy in many ways, but there was one aspect of the culture that I really struggled with – the work ethic.

I was a good employee, I put in the hours and every month I would smash my targets. No matter how hard I worked, the message from management was always ‘work harder’. Achievements not only went unacknowledged, but there was also a general feeling in the office that seeking recognition for your hard work was ‘soft’ and attention-seeking. If someone spoke up about the contribution they’d made, the response would be some approximation of ‘well what do you want? A pat on the back?’. 

Working unpaid overtime was a given.  Time in lieu? Forget it.

If I arrived at work 10 minutes late and stayed back until 8:30 pm, management would reprimand my lateness in front of others, but wouldn’t acknowledge the work I put in after hours. This type of culture was one of the key reasons why I ultimately decided to move on and work for myself. 

Australians are addicted to overtime 

Although Australia’s Fair Work Act caps the standard work-week at a maximum of 38 hours, our country has established an unhealthy overtime culture. A 2018 Australia Institute Survey found that employers get an average of six hours of unpaid overtime from each employee per week or about two months per year. This staying-till-8pm work mentality needs to be done away with, and it’s the job of both employees and workers to get rid of it. 

Overtime culture is perpetuated when agencies choose to prioritise their bottom line (money, money, money) and reputation. These organisations will often scramble to show their clients that they’ve delivered a project on time and under budget whilst using as few resources (people) as possible. The ultimate goal in this situation is to boost an agency’s industry reputation, but instead, these practices result in reduced productivity and employee burnout. A study published in Social Science & Medicine in 2017 found that an employee’s mental health begins to decline when working more than 39 hours per week, whilst a combined Stanford University and Iza study found that productivity sharply declines after 50 hours. 

So, how do we put an end to overtime culture?

1. If you’re an employer – do right by your staff 

Support your staff and make sure you have the right amount of resources in place to get a job done properly. In my experience as a Recruiter, One of the most common reasons that professionals leave their role is because the company’s established overtime culture is taking a toll on their mental health. When you factor in the cost of replacing a burnt-out member of staff, adding an additional resource to a project won’t seem so extravagant. 

2. If you’re an employee – set your work boundaries, and stick to them

If you currently work in an agency where overtime is a given, then you’re in the wrong place. There are agencies out there who work to ensure their employees have a proper work-life balance. They achieve this through adequate resourcing and a willingness to push back on client demands. Don’t believe for a second that overtime is ‘part of the job’ because it isn’t and you deserve better. 

Secondly, you need to establish your own boundaries between your work and personal life. Know your limits, and stick to them, because wherever money is involved, there is room for exploitation to occur if you aren’t strict with yourself and others about the limits of the work you do. 

3. If you’re a senior leader in a role where a degree of overtime is expected – your time is valuable and it’s ok to ask for it back

A common response that I hear when I talk about overtime culture is that in some senior roles, a degree of overtime is expected. The odd amount of overtime or weekend work is fine if it’s occasional and you need to go above and beyond to secure a win for the business. However, you need to make sure you get the time back through time in lieu. Set precedents make it clear that your time is valuable.

However, if you’re in a senior role where overtime is the standard five days a week, then you need to speak up and delegate. Overtime culture starts at the top and you set the example that junior employees follow. 

Overtime culture benefits no one. So let’s work together to make sure everyone leaves work on time.