Let’s Talk About…Managing Overtime

Q: I seem to let overtime consume my life! What can I do?

Many will empathise! Lots of people do overtime on a regular basis, and not just Senior Management. A common contractual figure is 37.5 hours per week. Most people I have encountered in the world of private business consistently and significantly exceed that figure (some almost doubling it). I’m not always convinced that the reference to “reasonable unpaid overtime” found in most contracts is working as it should!

Putting any legal aspect aside (I’m not hearing “My employer actively makes me do it” in your question), reaction to overtime is largely unique to each person, depending on their own values, priorities, financial and family situations, or life strategies. Overtime may be a fact, but not a problem, depending on your standpoint. If overtime is a problem for you, note that it is an outcome, and not in itself the problem. To tackle it, break it down: Name the Cause, Name the Solution, Implement the Solution.

To me, overtime should never be routine (how often have you heard “Oh, I work until 8pm most nights”?). Rather, it should imply an emergency, a useful event (e.g. testing an improved system), or a learning opportunity. However, some frequent causes are:

  • Modern work tools – we can now work at home, on planes, during family outings…and therefore feel that we should.
  • Modern business culture – recent start-ups (tech companies, in particular) have flourished with a culture of collaboration and engagement, blurring the work/life divide and creating an “Everybody’s doing it” snowball effect in relation to longer hours.
  • The global “Now!” culture – in this era of Customer Service and KPIs, few people want to wait until tomorrow for anything, however unimportant, if someone can stay and do it today.
  • Poor time management – not helped by personal smartphones being kept on desks, or excessively chatty colleagues
  • “Professional” or managerial salaries – overtime is often deemed to be included, and indeed expected.
  • Travel time – travel to client sites, or different countries, is often not counted as ‘work’.
  • Self-worth – rightly or wrongly, we define ourselves by our work. Many people use overtime to try to win security, even avoiding delegation to create perceived busy-ness.
  • Poor discipline around meetings – add to this the international nature of business in Ireland, with “The US need us on videoconference at 8pm”, or “Singapore need us at 6.30am”.
  • Assumption – we assume that Senior Management fully understand the extent of overtime and just don’t care. We don’t consistently flag, quantify and define it, suggesting constructive solutions.

On the other hand, some people love their work so much, they simply don’t notice the time go by – work is priority, and money is not their driver. Some people just want to avoid the rush hour – it’s not ‘overtime’ but, dangerously, it becomes labelled as such.

What are the potential problems of overtime left unchecked? For you, the employee: time stolen from your personal life; an hourly salary that, if you do the maths, has likely significantly diminished, thereby devaluing your time; neglected family and friends, and related guilt; lost hobbies or relaxation time; diminishing health (missing meals, poor quality meals; not noticing changes in health…). And so on.

An employer runs the risk of mutiny if everyone is under excessive pressure, or of individual resignation or legal proceedings. Knowledge is lost as staff disappear. Replacing staff is not cheap. Work quality diminishes if staff become tired, indifferent or ill, or staff absence increases. And so on.

And, lest we forget, the unemployed person runs the risk that all of that extra work will continue to be soaked up for free by existing employees, further limiting their opportunities.

If overtime is an issue for you, define which causes are relevant to you. Then, decide on realistic changes – whatever causes you identified, simply consider their elimination, or minimisation, one-by-one.

Finally, turn each solution into an action, creating new rules, habits, and incentives – commit to a hobby, leave your phone in your bag, start delegating, write a business case for extra staff… This is about your time, your life, so take back the controls!


  1. Know what level of overtime you are willing to tolerate.
  2. Ask (with a smile!) investigative questions at interview about the reality of working hours in that company or industry.
  3. Know what your contract says.
  4. Do not assume that Management fully understand overtime – define, quantify and inform.
  5. Be specific – understand why you are doing excessive overtime.
  6. List your causes of overtime in order of impact.
  7. List the solutions to each cause.
  8. Name the steps involved in each solution and implement, seeking support where needed.
  9. Monitor the success of changes weekly.


This Q&A was first published in Irish Tatler magazine.

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