End Unpaid Overtime

Understanding the hours we work

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19 November 2023

End Unpaid Overtime

Understanding the hours we work

Australian’s do an average of around 5 hours per week of unpaid work, sometimes by coming in early, leaving late, skipping breaks or by answering work emails and messages out of hours. While skipping lunch might not feel like much free work at the time, doing it just twice a week is the equivalent of almost 8 days of unpaid work per year!

We have just wrapped up a survey of over 5,400 people and are working on a report to showcase your experiences with the hours you work and the impact they have on your work and personal life.

Unpaid overtime is an increasingly pervasive issue in modern workplaces, especially as work-life boundaries blur. It refers to the additional hours an employee works beyond their contracted time, for which they receive no compensation. This phenomenon is not merely about staying late at the office; it extends to taking calls or emails after hours, skipping breaks, and working through lunch hours. It’s a subtle yet insidious form of “time theft” that goes largely unnoticed and unchallenged. 

In Australia, unpaid overtime has become a significant concern. The Australia Institute’s Go Home On Time Day initiative, an annual spotlight on overwork, highlights the prevalence and severity of the issue. Its research indicates that a substantial portion of the workforce regularly engages in unpaid overtime, contributing to a culture where extended work hours are normalised and often expected. 

How Much Unpaid Overtime Does the Average Person Do? 

The extent of unpaid overtime in Australia has not only persisted but has intensified over recent years. The Go Home On Time Day 2021 report, published by the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute, provides a critical insight into this escalating trend. In 2021, the average Australian in waged employment reported working 6.13 hours of unpaid overtime per week. This marked an increase from the average of 5.25 hours recorded in 2020. Annually, this represents a staggering 319 hours of unpaid overtime per worker, amounting to approximately 3.3 billion hours of collective unpaid labor across the workforce​​. 

This upward trajectory of unpaid overtime is a clear indicator of deepening work-life imbalances and the permeation of work into traditionally non-work hours. This is particularly pronounced in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which blurred the lines between home and work lives even further and added additional caring responsibilities for many. This ‘double burden’ has significantly impacted women, who often juggle professional and caregiving roles. The increase in unpaid overtime over the last five years underscores not only the individual burden borne by workers but also the broader societal implications, as it signifies a considerable investment of personal time into work without corresponding financial compensation. 

What Are the Impacts of Doing Excessive Overtime? 

The impacts of excessive unpaid overtime are multifaceted, affecting both employers and employees as well as the broader economy. 

  • Health and Well-being: Chronic unpaid overtime can lead to severe health issues, including stress, burnout, and mental health problems. The persistent pressure to work beyond contracted hours without compensation can lead to increased anxiety, sleep disturbances, and a host of other stress-related issues. 
  • Work-Life Balance: As unpaid overtime becomes the norm, the balance between personal life and work is disrupted. This imbalance can strain relationships, reduce leisure and family time, and negatively impact overall life satisfaction. 
  • Economic Impacts: The Go Home On Time Day research outlines the broader economic implications of unpaid overtime. The 2018 report estimated the total value of unpaid overtime across the Australian workforce at approximately $106 billion. This vast amount of unpaid work undermines the economy by reducing consumer spending power and exacerbating wage stagnation. 
  • Workplace Culture and Productivity: While it may seem that unpaid overtime could boost productivity, the reality is often the opposite. Long working hours without proper rest can lead to decreased productivity, lower job satisfaction, and increased error rates. Additionally, a culture that implicitly endorses unpaid overtime can lead to disengagement and resentment among employees. 
  • Gender Disparities: Unpaid overtime also has gendered implications. Women, who often juggle work with disproportionate care giving responsibilities, are particularly affected. This disparity can exacerbate existing gender inequalities in the workplace and beyond. 

Unpaid overtime is a complex issue deeply entrenched in contemporary work culture. Solutions must be multifaceted, including legislative changes, cultural shifts in workplaces, and greater awareness among employees about their rights. It’s crucial for employers to recognise the value of their employees’ time and for workers to understand the importance of setting boundaries. This balance is vital not just for individual well-being but for the health of our broader economy and society.

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