How working unpaid hours became part of the job

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We're working more hours than ever, whether a late-night email or an early call. How did all these unpaid hours become part of the job?

When Erik took his first job as a junior associate at an international law firm, he knew the normal rules of nine-to-five didn’t apply. Based in Hong Kong, his employer was as prestigious as it was notorious for running new recruits into the ground. Monstrous workloads and late nights were non-negotiable. 

“It’s simply a given in the legal industry,” explains Erik. “Generally, lawyers don’t get paid overtime. Very occasionally, I’d have to pull an all-nighter.” 

Now working in Beijing, Erik has moved up the corporate ladder. Further into his career, there are fewer workdays that bleed into the following morning. A conventional working week, however, remains elusive. “Working towards 40 hours a week would be a light week for me,” he says. “My hours depend on my clients’ needs – I don’t have the option of working fewer.”  

Drawn-out days at the desk quickly rack up. In the UK, pre-pandemic, more than five million workers averaged an extra 7.6 hours a week, contributing to £35bn in unpaid overtime. Now, according to global figures from the ADP Research Institute, one in 10 people say they work at least 20 hours a week for free. On average, workers are posting 9.2 hours of unpaid overtime every week. Across the world, overwork figures have sharply risen in the wake of Covid-19 – with free hours more than doubling in North America, particularly.  

Remote working has intensified the problem. The average global workday has lengthened by nearly two hours, and research has shown that most UK employers acknowledge staff work additional, unpaid hours every day. Workers can attribute the uptick in overtime to a loss of work-life boundaries; as commutes, offices and lunch breaks have disappeared for many knowledge workers, so too has the hard line between signing on and off. Inboxes fill over breakfast. Deadlines spill into the evenings. Zoom meetings run into the early hours. 

For many workers, keeping switched on beyond closing time has become the expectation rather than an exception. But it’s rarely explicitly spelled out verbally, let alone in writing. Rather, it’s a tacit understanding between employer and employee: forget contracted hours, you can only log off once you’re done for the day.  

But how did it get this way – and what happens next? 

The root of the problem 

Covid-19 may have exacerbated the problem, but unpaid overtime has been part of many jobs for decades. In industrial times, employees had weekly fixed hours; working beyond closing time meant reimbursement. But by the mid-20th Century, office culture boomed, swelling ranks of salaried, middle-class professionals. The number of jobs measured by tangible output shrank. In the modern workplace, tasks could no longer be neatly delineated like on the factory floor; ambiguity over when work was ‘finished’ gave rise to unpaid overtime. 

Fundamentally, it comes down to a mix-up of signals that longer hours are linked to productivity – Grace Lordan

The fact that businesses based their office hours on industry’s eight-hour workday meant that knowledge workers were already spending too long at their desks. “The type of labour many of us do today, intensive work in front of a computer, can’t cognitively be done for more than five hours a day,” says Abigail Marks, professor of the future of work at Newcastle University Business School, UK. Yet despite this, workdays gradually got longer and longer. 

Grace Lordan, associate professor in behavioural science at the London School of Economics, highlights the 1980s as a turning point. In the UK and the US, Thatcherism and Wall Street popularised the idea of increasingly long hours. If you wanted that big promotion, you had to devote yourself to the workplace – working overtime became a status symbol

“Fundamentally, it comes down to a mix-up of signals that longer hours are linked to productivity,” explains Lordan. “In the 1950s, office workers would see their families for dinner. By the 1990s, they’d be lucky to see them on weekends.” 

As economies globalised, working hours were only going one way. But then technology hit the accelerator. By the 2010s, everyone had a digital tether that connected them to their work morning, noon and night. Inboxes were ever-present; work-related calls and messages invaded the same communication tools people used for socialising. “The smartphone was the death knell for working hours,” says Marks. “As soon as you put work email on your phone, people will take advantage. Then, you get into the habit of always being available.” 

How we normalised overwork 

Since the pandemic hit, office presenteeism has become even more digitised. Remote work has created an environment in which managers can call on staff around the clock. “I’m expected to respond to clients’ requests,” explains Erik. Although that may no longer necessitate all-nighters, working into the early hours continues. “Most of the time, I manage to coordinate with clients in different time zones. But if we’re closing a transaction, I may need to stay late.”

We hate saying no – and if bosses expect us on early calls or to answer late-night emails, we tend to oblige (Credit: Getty Images)

We hate saying no – and if bosses expect us on early calls or to answer late-night emails, we tend to oblige (Credit: Getty Images)

In some countries, cultural expectations feed into excessive office hours. In Japan, for instance, overwork is important professional currency. “Here, hard work demonstrates that you’re a loyal employee,” explains Jeff Kingston, director of the Asian Studies major at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “And it means your boss is more likely to accelerate your climb up the corporate ladder. Working hard, and spending long hours to impress your boss, is seen as a real virtue.” 

Elsewhere working long hours can be the product of peer pressure, a desire to get ahead or reacting to our environment. “We like to follow others,” says Lordan. “On your first day at your new job, you look for non-verbal social cues to fit in. If there are people working late or into the weekend, you’re more likely to copy that behaviour.”  

We also hate saying no. If the boss emails after hours, we reply. If there’s a 0600 Zoom call, we dial in. If we need to work late, we’d rather do it than kick up a fuss – even if such commitment isn’t reflected in our salary. “It’s embedded in employees,” says Marks. “People are always scared of losing their jobs, and that someone will do a better job than them. If everyone else is doing it, you have to do it as well.” 

There are sector-specific pressures, too. Employees in some creative jobs are meant to feel ‘lucky’, so working a few extra hours is assumed. In finance, pulling an all-nighter is a rite of passage on the way to becoming a partner. Challenging such social norms in the workplace is seen as taboo. “As humans, we want to be seen as being nice and amenable,” says Lordan. “It all fits into our narrative that we’re hard workers and collaborative. Long hours traditionally measure hard work and productivity – and so we work unpaid overtime.” 

Why change isn’t so easy

Yet there are signs that the workforce has had enough of long working weeks and midnight calls. Millions of people around the world are quitting their jobs as part of what’s being called the Great Resignation. Optimists might suggest that, with the labour market thriving, employees can finally call the shots and demand an end to unpaid overtime. 

If everyone else is doing it, you have to do it as well - Abigail Marks

The reality, however, is different. “The group voting with their feet are typically those in their later career – the ones who can afford to go,” says Lordan. “Younger generations don’t have that luxury. Competition for jobs at firms which demand long hours remains fierce. It comes down to people wanting to fit in with a working culture established long before they walked through the office doors – it’s very difficult to break that.” 

Working extended hours is also so baked into office culture that many businesses rely on overtime. It’s why, even amid a pandemic, familiar practices have returned: big financial firms notorious for long-hours working culture have already demanded staff return to the office five days a week. If bosses mandate long office-based days and unpaid overtime, it’s hard for employees to take a stand and say no. “It’s those at the top who are the gatekeepers for opportunities and promotion,” says Lordan. “If they believe in presenteeism, those beneath them will find it hard to not work that extra hour.” 

Robust government legislation could help bring change, says Marks. The current trend is for four-day working weeks, with trials in the likes of Iceland, Spain and Ireland. She has doubts on whether the idea will succeed. 

“Organisations do very well out of free labour. But many employers aren’t in a place to suddenly reduce workloads, so employees will probably have to cram five days’ worth of work into four.” And even when governments issue directives on working hours, it’s bosses – not ministers – who ultimately set the tone. In Japan and South Korea, for example, it’s clear that cultural pressures still override legislative efforts at many firms. 

There is, of course, a body of research showing that working fewer hours boosts productivity. But for knowledge work, the difficulty lies with how we measure output. Clearly, that marker shouldn’t be time. Lordan says it has to be task-based – it’s the only way of keeping unpaid overtime in check. 

But this will require a new perspective from senior leaders. “Ultimately, managers need to define what has to be done and allow their employees to do it. If you want positive change, you need to get more managers, who aren’t as controlling, in key roles.” 

Even if overtime is hard to eradicate, the pandemic has magnified conversations around working culture. It’s increasingly leading to employee activism. Lordan cites the recent case of Goldman Sachs: young bankers were given a pay rise following their complaints of working 95-hour weeks. It could, perhaps, be the start of a shift. 

“As long as there are high-paying companies with senior management that hold the belief that hours equal productivity, you will always have professional workers sacrificing self and wellbeing to make the cut,” says Lordan. “Over time, those who care more about their work-life balance will choose the companies that offer greater flexibility.”