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The Hidden Cost of Overwork: How Excessive Overtime is Undermining UK Business Productivity and Employee Wellbeing

The UK’s overwork culture, with excessive unpaid overtime, is causing burnout, high turnover, and productivity loss. HR leaders must address unrealistic workloads, reset cultural norms, and rethink hybrid work practices to prevent this toxic culture from eroding workforce and organizational performance.

UK businesses are facing a ticking time bomb in the form of an engrained overwork culture that is burning employees out and undermining productivity, retention, and bottom-line performance. That’s the sobering conclusion from Protime UK’s new study which examines the prevalence and impacts of excessive overtime across the nation’s workplaces.

The research findings paint a sorry picture: over half (54%) of employees are logging up to four days of completely unpaid overtime each month.

Tallied up across the workforce, that equates to a staggering 19 million days per year of uncompensated labour extracted from UK workers.

It’s a crisis that is exacting an significant human toll: 53% of those overworking suffered from increased stress and anxiety, while 41% have experienced burnout as a result of unsustainable workloads. A quarter aren’t even taking holidays owed as they struggle under the strain.

The impacts stretch far beyond just employee wellness and quality of life. The operational consequences are dragging down organisational performance across multiple fronts:

Productivity craters, with 38% of overworked staff saying they are less productive

Work quality nosedives for 29% operating under excessive workload pressure

28% report overwork damaging their relationship with their manager

Perhaps most alarmingly, one in five overworked employees plans to quit within 6 months and just over one in ten would quit but are doing too much unpaid work to look for a new job.

In short, overwork is a key driver of increased turnover, engagement, productivity and quality problems that severely impact a company’s ability to remain competitive.

So what workplace factors are enabling this toxic culture of excessive overtime? The data points to some clear culprits:

Unrealistic Workloads & Poor Distribution

Over a quarter (28%) of employees say they cannot complete their workload during normal working hours, inevitably forcing overtime. Another 27% specifically want to see more proactive workload management and better distribution across teams by managers.

Lack of Boundary Reinforcement

20% of workers directly criticise managers for delegating unrealistic amounts of work given the time available. This highlights a clear disconnect between leadership expectation-setting and employee capacity that is fuelling the overwork fire.

Hybrid Work Vulnerability

The shift to remote and hybrid work models has exacerbated the overwork problem. A full 33% of employees said they were more prone to working unpaid overtime when operating out of the office environment.

With all these drivers at play, the factors enabling excessive overtime have become commonplace across organisations and workforce cultures. This leads to a vicious cycle where employee turnover, disengagement and errors hit business performance.

As the people responsible for employee experience and people strategy, the research makes a clear case for HR leaders to get a handle on the overwork epidemic in order to improve outcomes for people and business. There are a few key priorities:

Revamp Workload Management Capabilities

With unrealistic workloads the biggest culprit, HR must partner with operational leaders to put in place better processes, policies, and enablement tools to accurately forecast work, align it to realistic capacity, and ensure fair distribution. This includes training for people managers on workload planning and monitoring.

Reset Cultural Norms and Expectations

The fact that so many employees feel they cannot take time off or disengage is a sign of a skewed culture which equates excessive overtime with dedication. HR needs to work across the organisation to reset these expectations, role model healthy boundaries, and implement policies that better respect work-life boundaries and prevent burnout.

Rethink Hybrid Work Practices

With remote employees particularly susceptible to overwork, HR teams need to re-evaluate training, technology, and managerial processes to boost oversight, communication, and support for distributed workforces. Virtual work should be an enabler of flexibility, not a catalyst for increased workloads.

Left unaddressed, this always-on, perpetual overwork culture will only intensify the retention, productivity, and operational crises facing businesses today.

HR leaders must make reversing these toxic norms a top strategic priority – the long-term health and competitiveness of their organisations depends on it.

Simon Garrity is the UK Country Manager for Protime, https://www.protimewfm.co.uk/en-gb.

You can get your own copy of the research by visiting the research section of the Protime UK website here.

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