Aussies work 240 unpaid hours a year. Here's how to stop
Updated: Feb 7
It's Go Home on Time Day!
Now you might be wondering how many fucking days do corporates need to remind them to treat staff like human beings? And you aren’t alone! I audibly scoffed when I first saw Go Home On Time Day. Much like R U OK? Day, it seems to be a day that preaches a message we should be following 365 days per year. And I’m not going to argue and say it’s not that. Because it is. I just don’t think we should hold the folks at Go Home On Time Day or R U OK? Day accountable for this ridiculousness, because they wouldn’t exist unless there was a need for them. Which unfortunately, there is.
Go Home On Time Day (which I will now be calling GHOTD because it’s annoying to type) has a tool you can use to calculate all your unpaid overtime. They report that the average worker in Australia loses almost 5 hours per week to unpaid overtime – or 240 hours per year.
And across Australia, unpaid overtime exacts a terrible toll. Australians will work a total of 2.4 billion hours of unpaid overtime this year, worth over $80 billion per year.
Since I started working a salaried job, I have probably stayed late at work a total of five times. The longest I’ve ever stayed is probably 90 minutes, and it was for a project I was personally invested in. This is not just circumstance. I make it a priority to get out on time. As GHOTD identifies, unpaid overtime is basically ‘stolen time’ for the employee, and it’s free labour for the employer.
I guess this is the part when I add caveats. I’m mostly talking about office jobs, my job is not saving lives, I’m in a privileged position, etc. I know it won’t be the same for everyone. But that is why it’s so important. Workplaces as a whole won’t change the culture - we have to. If you’re in a position to set a precedent, you should. Do it for the person to come after you, or the brand new recruit at your company. Be the change and all of that.
I know some jobs come with longer hours due to workload, lack of resources, or it simply being part of the role. But we need to take responsibility for getting ourselves out on time wherever humanly possible. You can’t count on someone to encourage you to knock off on time (I have actually had a few managers that did, but it’s still been my responsibility to take charge of it).
How do you do that? I hear you ask. You just do it. Don’t apologise, don’t act like it’s an unusual thing. Just do it. If your contract mandates you should finish at 5:00, you shut down your emails at 5:02. Pack up your stuff at 5:02:30. Say “well I’m off! See you tomorrow!” you could even add “first thing in the morning, I will focus on finishing X task.”
It’s ideal if you do this as soon as you start a job. It’s really hard to revert back to this way of working when your team has become accustomed to you putting in the long hours. I don’t have much experience in reverting back after setting the expectation of long hours, and I think the only way is to have a frank conversation with your boss. More on that in the ‘having the conversation’ section below.
When it’s ‘okay’ to work late
Before we delve into the problems and solutions, it is important to say that sometimes it will suit or even benefit you to work late. This will of course be up to your personal preferences, but here are the times I think it’s okay to work late. Note that the element they have in common is that they are all temporary.
A big project with a hard deadline
Lots of jobs require you to complete a big project a few times a year alongside your everyday tasks. It can be a juggle to get it all done, and sometimes it might be appropriate, even necessary, to work a bit late to pull it off. Just remember that it’s for the project and not a routine thing.
A personal achievement
When you’re working late for you, you’re getting a payoff. Whether you’re completing a project that will look great on your resume, or organising an event that will present excellent networking opportunities, it often will be worth it to pull a few long days. Just keep your eyes on the prize and remember you’re doing it for you.
When you want to go above and beyond
Sometimes it’s worth putting in a few unpaid hours to impress your boss or pull off something big. If you know your work will be appreciated, it might be a fair exchange to put in a week or two of later nights. Staying late only really becomes an issue if and when it is routine and expected, so keep it to a specific timeframe.
You’re stuck in a meeting and nobody else is leaving
This one isn’t set in stone. If a meeting is going on way past knockoff time, and/or you have somewhere you need to be, you should be allowed to skedaddle. But sometimes it is easier to just stick around and wait until it wraps up, even if it is to avoid bringing attention to yourself. If meetings are consistently going on past home time, this is a different story.
Determine why you’re working late
If you’re constantly working late to get your assigned tasks done, there is a problem. That problem could be one of two things. Either the workload is too much for one person, or you’re simply not productive enough during the day (and there’s more to this one, so don’t get defensive). If it’s the first reason, it’s a difficult one because it’s entirely out of your control. If it’s the second reason, it could come down to a few sub-reasons, and they won’t always be your fault. The first thing to do is pin down the specific and exact reason you’re working late.
Maybe it's because of redundancies, low resources, or simply the requirements of the job, but there aren’t many work problems worse than having an unmanageable workload. Having an unmanageable workload zaps any form of satisfaction quick-smart. Every time you get something done, there are a million other things to do, and they are probably all behind schedule. It takes a toll on your health, life in and outside work, and productivity.
Ugh. If only there was a simple solution for this one. Especially in this climate, it is almost impossible to solve this problem on your own. Lots of companies are heavily benefitting from the horrendous job market and taking the approach that their employees are ‘just lucky to have a job.’ Which may be true, but is also totally exploitative. The only two ways to solve this problem are to look for another job (which, in this climate, is hard), or have a tough convo with your boss. More on that below!
I’m not trying to point fingers, but some of the time it will simply come down to organisation. Are you organised at work? Do you waste time? Be honest. If you are, then that’s on you boo. Get a to-do list going and stay focussed. Or keep working until 8pm if you prefer. It’s up to you!
Planning and scheduling is completely up to the individual and there is no one-size-fits-all way to get stuff done. Here are a few simple methods and strategies you could try, and if they don’t work, do some Googling for a literal endless list. There will be something for you.
Write a weekly to-do list and categorise it into daily tasks. Each day, focus on the tasks allotted for the day. Try to avoid switching daily tasks out for others that might be more enjoyable or easier, or you’ll be stuck with all the shitty ones on Friday.
First thing each morning, write down your top three tasks for the day. Lots of research states that three is the magic number for productivity. If you get assigned a new task, either replace it for something else on your list or bump it to tomorrow’s.
Set times for breaks. One for lunch, one for coffee, two for snacks, etc. Stick to the times and plan your tasks around those breaks. I.e. Complete one task in its entirety before your morning coffee.
Start on a high note. Set the tone for the day by doing an easy but impactful task like clearing your email inbox or finishing something from the day before. This will start you off on a high.
The age-old corporate annoyance. This is unfortunately something that affects a lot of people, especially middle-management. Some workplaces have a heavy meeting-based culture, and I think it just comes down to an old-school way of operating and bureaucracy. Meetings aren’t always a waste of time, but a lot of them are longer than they need to be.
This one is tricky to solve, but if you have any control over the setting of meetings, consider a phone call or email instead, or set an agenda and stick to it. Unfortunately, if you’re not in a high-up position, you don’t have much power over this. Try setting up another meeting or phone call straight after a meeting you think will go long so you have a reason to scoot out of there.
Unproductive work environment
This is a big one. A business will never be able to create a work environment that suits everyone. Some people like to work from home, some prefer an isolated cubicle, and others want an open space. It’s never going to be perfect, so you might just have to make the best of it.
If you find you get caught up talking to people walking past, put on headphones (over ear preferable) and keep your eyes on the screen. Don’t keep your emails open all the time, just check them every hour or so. Put your phone in your drawer. Keep snacks at your desk to avoid having to go to the kitchen. Do what you need to do to get out on time. Alternatively, you could have a conversation with your boss about working outside, in a communal area, or from home. Post-pandemic is the perfect time to push for this!
Having the conversation
I’ve read so many articles with advice on how to have hard conversations at work, and I don’t know if it’s just that the workplace has changed or if the authors are out of touch, but I have found approximately 0 of them to be helpful. Millennials and Gen Z are two generations that demand work-life balance, but are also very scared of conflict (especially face-to-face), and to top it off, experience world-class imposter syndrome. So here are some top tips for having a conversation that makes you want to vomit and/or move to Iceland, ordered by how ballsy you’re feeling. You might like to use a few of these tips in conjunction.
Start looking for a new job
This might seem a bit dramatic, but a company that expects you to work long hours with no compensation is taking advantage of you, plain and simple. It might take you a while to find one, but start looking for a business with a better approach to work-life balance. If you get a job offer, you don’t even have to take the position, you can just use it as a bargaining chip. Tell them you’ll stay if they can guarantee no more unpaid overtime. You might even get a raise out of it. Otherwise, take the new job and stick to your 9-5 schedule in a fresh position.
Check your rights
No matter how you decide to have the conversation or with whom, make sure you have read your contract in its entirety, looked at Fair Work’s guidelines and policies, and read up on any union or enterprise agreement you are involved in. You might not need to pull out your findings in the conversation, in fact, I would usually recommend you avoid doing that if you can help it. You don’t want your boss to be on the defensive, and you don’t want to show all your cards in the first instance. So don’t come armed with seven full print-outs of your ‘proof’, but do be ready if you get some pushback. And even if you do, a simple “I checked my contract just the other day and I know it states my work day should be 7.5 hours, but I have been doing a lot more than that lately,” will be more effective than pulling out an “according to Fair Work Australia…” The key is to be prepared but not let them know you are prepared.
Put it in an email
This one is great because you can put all of your thoughts together without having to worry about a scary conversation (although you probably will get a phone call about it pretty quickly), but it also means your words will last into perpetuity, so choose them carefully. Especially when writing, avoid using emotive wording like ‘I feel’. You don’t feel you have been working long hours, you either have or you haven’t. As for what to put into the email? Jump to the ‘don’t make it about them’ section.
Make a phone call
Making a call is a bit more ballsy than sending an email, but a step down from talking face-to-face. Possibly the best thing about making a phone call is that you can do it on your terms and essentially catch them off guard. When talking face-to-face, you might need to set a meeting, and you will definitely find yourself mirroring their mood and may be more likely to back down. If you do make a call, do it at a time that suits you when you’re not rushed or under pressure, and write some dot points down before dialling to stay on message. If you have someone there to nod encouragingly at you when you’re talking, that may also be immensely helpful.
Go to the top
Or to just a few steps up or to the side. Sometimes these conversations need to be had with someone other than your manager. If you choose to follow this step, tread carefully. Making an enemy out of your direct manager (even if they’re in the wrong) will only end badly for you. Your managers’ boss or HR are great people to have this conversation with. Keep in mind that HR’s main job is to protect the company, so avoid blurting out your life story. I recommend having a conversation along the lines of “I know [manager] is really stressed/busy with [whatever], so I thought it would be best to come to you.”
Don’t make it about them
As for what you should actually say? This is my best advice. People don’t want to feel as though they have put you in a bad situation (even if they have) because it makes them face their consequences and that’s yucky! The most productive conversations I’ve had around work issues remove any blame from the person or organisation. Tell them that even though you have been working long hours previously, you can’t keep it up any longer. This shows them that you are aware of your long hours and know it’s not standard. You can tailor this line to your own life. Perhaps you want to spend more time with loved ones. Maybe your health has taken a toll (it’s likely this has already happened). Be honest without being too honest, and offer a solution. Tell them you know you can still get a lot of work done and will be placing more emphasis on prioritising. Then follow through. You must follow through with both leaving on time and staying productive in the time you are working.
Ask for a raise/promotion/position update
I just heard you swallow some bile. I know it's hard, but I believe this conversation is needed in some instances. The aim of this conversation is to leave the room better off than you were when you entered it, and to show your boss you’re no pushover. The literal outcome will depend on what you really want, ie. you may not actually want a promotion, you might just want your boss to stop giving you ‘urgent’ tasks five minutes before home time. For this one, you should set a formal meeting with the relevant person. You should lay out what you’ve done in your time at the company and how it compares to your position description (PD). Your request might be to have your PD updated to reflect the actual tasks you do (which may come with a raise, promotion, or title change), or it might be to remove the tasks not on your PD from your workload. You might have solid data on the positive impact you’ve made on the company. Show them the receipts. You might have the average salaries of other people in your position that show you are being underpaid. Show them that. Now again, remember your main objective. In this example, your main objective is to stop working late. In this climate, it is likely you won’t be getting a raise. It’s also likely your workload has increased because resources are tight, so you might not get a reduction in tasks. But that’s okay, because you have an objective. If your boss looks you dead in the eye (or, more likely, over your shoulder or above your head), and says no to your requests, this is what you say: “thank you for your time, and I understand.” You might like to add “unfortunately I won’t be able to continue working long hours as I have been,” or you might just like to show them that with your actions. Your call. Even though you have your objective, you should also be prepared for them to say yes to your request. If you are pulling out all the stops, you should be prepared for them to offer you a raise or promotion, and prepared to continue doing long hours for more cash. Have a plan A, B, and C, when you enter that meeting and make sure you come out on top.
I hope you found at least one thing in this article helpful for your situation. Good luck, and godspeed. Let’s all go home on time in 2021!