Startling insights into the UK’s brutal overtime culture emerged from the TUC on 28 February, in honour of Work Your Proper Hours Day. 
Taking a deep dive into Q3 2018 data from the Office for National Statistics, plus the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (2018), the TUC revealed that the unpaid hours UK staff put in last year were worth a staggering £32 billion.
Breaking down the figures by gender, the study showed that men work just over 1bn unpaid overtime hours per year (1,048 million hours), compared to 0.9bn for women (908 million hours). One in four public-sector staff worked unpaid overtime in 2018, compared to around one in six of their private-sector counterparts. Indeed, public-sector workers contributed £12bn to last year’s tally of unpaid overtime – so, while they comprise only a quarter of the UK workforce, they grind out more than a third (35.3%) of the nation’s total unpaid hours.
In occupational terms, the study revealed that teachers and other education professionals work the highest average number of unpaid hours per week, at 12.1 hours. Chief executives are close behind with 11.4 extra hours per week, followed by legal professionals (10.2 hours), hospitality and catering managers (9.7 hours), financial, marketing and personnel managers (9.2 hours) and retail, leisure, finance and production managers (8.9 hours).
Regionally, London has formed the greatest reliance on free work. In 2018, London-based staff worked more than a third of a billion free hours (385 million). Almost one in four of the Capital’s employees (24.4%) did unpaid overtime last year, compared to the national average of less than one in five (18.2%). The South East is runner up on 20.3%, with the South West on 19.9% and the Eastern region on 18.6%.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “It’s not okay for bosses to steal their workers’ time. Lots of us are willing to put in a few extra hours when it’s needed, but too many employers are taking advantage. Overworking staff hurts productivity, leaves workers’ stressed and exhausted and eats into time that should be spent with family and friends.”
With so many managers either driving this monster or suffering from its effects, how can we get to grips with this most daunting of leadership challenges?
Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “I remember speaking to a young graduate who had just been given her first job, and she’d signed a contract of employment based around nine-to-five hours. And when she turned up for her first day, she found that everyone came in at about a quarter past eight. That, it transpired, was the culture – which was quite a surprise to this young woman, as it would be to any new graduate accustomed to minimum-wage, casual jobs in which the hours you’re given are the hours you work.
“If there is a cultural expectation that you will come in early and leave late, you have to wonder as a member of staff why that is the case. And if you contrast that with recent moves from organisations such as the Wellcome Trust and New Zealand firm Perpetual Guardian – who are trying to shorten the working week and make it more focused – it looks almost anachronistic for other employers to be so heavily swamped in presenteeism. So those organisations clearly require an overhaul.”
Cooper stresses: “As leaders, we must conduct a thorough audit of our expectations and their effects. Do we need to change our contracts of employment? Do we need to revisit how we talk about those contracts informally, and see whether clarity is being lost amid the Chinese whispers of the workplace? We must also determine the trigger points that are contributing to this flood of overtime. Is it happening because we’re short-staffed – or because our days are clogged with non-task focused activities?”
She notes: “The latter point receives a detailed interrogation in Workplace Insight’s new whitepaper The Square and the Tower,  based upon ideas set out in a recent Niall Ferguson book of the same title. One of the whitepaper’s most revealing passages reads: ‘Everybody has sat through unnecessary or misbegotten meetings. Everybody has left them with an awareness of to-dos that will remain undone. Yet at the same time, meetings are essential in a world that is reliant on relationships and the exchange of ideas and information.’ That rings true: meetings wouldn’t be so endemic in organisations if people didn’t like them. But how they are managed is often critical to whether or not staff can deal with their workloads within their contracted hours.”
Cooper adds: “If we are expecting people regularly to work over and above their agreed hours, then something is wrong. One of the primary gauges by which you can tell whether someone has aligned with an organisation’s purpose is if they will own important deadlines and do whatever it takes to get projects over the line in time. But that can’t be a baseline expectation: if you’re always required to work at that pace, and it’s very much the norm, then the whole concept of exceptional effort simply goes out of the window.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on the healthy workplace