Teeter-totter of life balance weighted by unpaid work


Despite the push in recent years to create better balance between our work and personal lives, the grind culture that has dominated for decades remains in ascendency.

Its reign has no doubt been supported – perhaps even prolonged – by the aftermath of the banking crisis that left many either out of work or clinging to unsecure employment. The decade-long drag on earnings that followed created an environment of quasi-desperation in which increasingly heavy workloads were endured as the only means of maintaining livelihoods.

Recent research from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) suggests this pattern may be repeating itself, with analysis of the ONS Labour Force Survey showing that UK workers did £24 billion of unpaid overtime during last year’s pandemic. More than three million people carried out an extra 7.7 hours every week, the equivalent of £7,300 per person in unpaid labour.

In an added wrinkle, the TUC also found that the top ten occupations where staff had put in unpaid overtime were all roles that could be done at home, which the trade union says is evidence that remote working is intruding into employees’ personal lives.

With a large proportion of the workforce still on furlough, remaining team members may be burdened with extra tasks to make up for the absence of colleagues. On the other hand, perhaps employers now feel entitled to consistent demands of more for less.

Either way, the fact remains that excessive workloads are one of the most common causes of stress, and that these feelings of being overwhelmed can spiral into serious threats to workers’ wellbeing.

The myth that employees who put in the longest hours are the most productive is long overdue for the dustbin. In reality, those who work the longest hours are often the most strung out by stress, and from missing out on valuable time with loved ones.

If employers choose to ignore the issue of excessive unpaid overtime – or even worse, if they rely on it – they may find that staff are soon too burned out to function properly.

Encouraging healthy working habits such as proper lunch breaks and reasonable working hours is not only the morally right thing to do, but also good business practice. With poor mental health costing UK employers an estimated £45 billion a year, the price of treating employees like tireless machines will prove a significant drag on the economic recovery from Covid.

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Posted on March 19, 2021