Work Life Balance: Is All That Unpaid Overtime Really Worth It?

“Stress is your body’s way of saying you haven’t worked enough unpaid overtime.” — Scott Adams, American cartoonist (Dilbert)

“More men are killed by overwork than the importance of this world justifies.” — Rudyard Kipling, British author

“By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.” — Robert Frost, American poet.

Is all that unpaid overtime worth it? - Laura Stack #LifeBalance #productivity

As I write this, we’re mired in the Great Recession of the early 2000s. The job market is tighter than it’s been in decades, which means that most of us are willing to do what it takes to keep the jobs we have. This often means putting in overtime, increasingly of the unpaid variety. The reasons that individual workers are willing to do so vary, but two factors are repeatedly cited: the need to prove themselves to management, and the perception that they they’ll lose their jobs otherwise. Sometimes the latter isn’t even a perception.

Salaried, with Benefits

Unpaid overtime is especially prevalent among salaried professionals, who are expected to modify the workweek as necessary to get the job done. But the job itself just seems to keep getting bigger, with workers required to take on more responsibilities as rising costs, attrition, competition, and other factors strike at profitability. It’s not that productivity is dropping; quite the opposite. We’re more productive than ever.

The notion of fairness has long since gone out the window in favor of need and expediency, so I won’t address that topic here. The bottom line is this: to many of us, being a workaholic is no longer a choice. It’s a job requirement. But is all this unpaid overtime productive, or harmful?

Like so many things in life, the answer isn’t cut and dried. It all depends on the circumstances.

The Pros

The way some jobs are structured, overtime is a necessity; you simply can’t get all your work done without putting in more than the traditional 40 hours. Management or HR should outline this for you during the recruitment phase, but usually they won’t (because they want you to take the job). Workers often discover from the very beginning that they have to do more than they expected; and even when that’s not the case, the workload may increase gradually as business conditions change. It’s up to you to decide whether your job is worth all the unpaid overtime, but if it is, said overtime becomes automatically worthwhile if you want to keep working. That’s a sour reality, but there it is; and some employers do take advantage of it.

Putting in unpaid overtime can also be beneficial if you’re trying to prove yourself to management, because in the long term it can result in greater promotion prospects and higher pay. This isn’t a universal result, but studies indicate that those who work plenty of unpaid overtime typically do better than their co-workers who don’t. In addition, willingness to work unpaid overtime increases your chances of keeping your job when it’s time to tighten the corporate belt.

In this sense, then, working unpaid overtime can be an investment toward future profits and employment. But the effect is contingent on staying with the same company, and maintaining the practice consistently. Management’s memory may not be particularly long, so remember: all that overtime last year might not matter if you haven’t put in any lately.

The Cons

It’s a fact of life that when you say “yes” to one thing, you have to say “no” to others. One of the worst things about overtime is that it keeps you away from friends and loved ones. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but only up to a certain point; you have to spend time with those you care for, so you can maintain and develop your relationships. Your children especially need you, as a positive role model at least.

Furthermore, many busy people push taking care of themselves down to the bottom of their to-do lists, where it often falls off and becomes lost in the daily triage of time management. This is bad enough, but too much work also results in exhaustion, which in the short term means that you make more mistakes and end up having to redo work, which means you become less productive.

In the long term, excessive overtime can have detrimental effects on your health. Karoshi (death from overwork) has been a recognized concept in Japan for decades, though it’s difficult to recognize in most other countries, which don’t keep statistics for such things. Depression is common among the overworked, and the suicide rate is higher among the chronically depressed. Feeling that you’re forced to put in unpaid overtime, for whatever reason, can make you feel trapped and helpless. These mental stresses, when added to the physical ones, can result in a catastrophic breakdown, one way or another.

On Balance

We all know that it’s a good idea to maintain a reasonable work/life balance, but the blunt truth is that under some circumstances, it’s just not possible. Something has to give, and in an economy like this one, it’s usually the rest of your life.

To answer the question posed in this blog’s title, unpaid overtime can be worthwhile, assuming you treat it as an investment and stick with it. On the whole, those people willing to work unpaid overtime have better chances of getting promotions and raises, and are more likely to avoid layoffs. It’s also worthwhile in a broader sense, if it’s necessary to keep your job.

They say hard work is good for the soul, and it can certainly help you get ahead, whether you’re getting paid for it or not. But as with anything, moderation is the key here. Too much work can keep you away from what really matters to you. It can also cause both physical and mental stress, which can have devastating health effects. If you do work overtime, know when you’ve reached your limit, and be willing to cut back as necessary so you don’t work yourself to death…literally.



  1. I love what you say about saying “yes” to one thing means saying “no” to another. As women, I think we have a hard time saying ‘No” and then become resentful when we don’t have enough time to get it all done. Systems are the key to getting and staying on track. Great post! BTW, found your blog through the Empire Avenue. . . .

  2. I’ve been asked about working overtime with no pay at my school. I flat out said no. When you say yes the first time, people expect you to do it the next time.


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