UK employees worked £24bn worth of unpaid overtime last year, research suggests

Experts urge employers to better manage staff workloads as increase in remote working blurs line between work and personal lives

British workers collectively clocked up £24bn worth of unpaid overtime last year, according to research from unions, leading to calls for employers to better manage staff workloads.

Analysis by the TUC of data from the Labour Force Survey found that more than three million UK employees on average worked an extra 7.7 hours per week during 2020, equivalent to £7,300 per person in unpaid overtime.

The union added that the top 10 occupational groups for unpaid overtime were all roles that could be done from home, which Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said was evidence that remote working has led to work bleeding into home life.

“The impact of working from home has been to increase unpaid hours worked,” she said. “As the UK begins to slowly exit from the pandemic, employers must support workers to balance work with their home lives, leisure and families. Ministers should help by bringing in new rights to flexible working for everyone.”

While the TUC said the number of employees working unpaid overtime actually fell compared to 2019, from five million down to three million, it said this could be accounted for by the number of people furloughed or reducing hours to pick up childcare responsibilities. The disruptions to working patterns caused by the coronavirus made 2020 “unique” and “not helpful for understanding long-term trends”, it added.

Commenting on the figures, Heejung Chung, a researcher on overtime and work-life balance at the University of Kent, said the figures still reflected a “tremendous” amount of overtime for which employees aren’t being compensated. “We have a huge number of workers with mental health issues including stress, anxiety and burnout,” she said.

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Chung added that unpaid overtime wasn’t just costly for workers – taking time out of their personal lives that could be spent with their families, for example – but the resulting loss in productivity could also be costly for employers.

“Worker absenteeism is costly to society, too, because work stress and burnout causes all sorts of mental and physical health problems, which is a huge burden on the NHS,” said Chung.

Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community, said the findings were a reminder that employers needed to support their workers’ mental health. “This evidence of extra unpaid hours is unacceptable and employers cannot continue to rely on staff beyond working hours and hope for the best.

“Employers need to pay attention to the TUC’s research and understand why workers need to shut down at the end of the day,” Aston added. “Employees are people, not machines. A business can’t run if their employees are too burned out to work.”

The TUC’s research found chief executives and senior officials worked the most unpaid overtime in 2020 – which Chung attributed to misplaced work cultures that saw long hours as giving a competitive advantage – followed by health and social services managers and directors.

A quarter (24.5 per cent) of teachers and educational professionals also worked unpaid overtime this year at an average rate of 10.7 hours per week, which, unlike in the corporate world, Chung said was an indication of understaffing in schools. “And if the job is so complex it needs a quarter of the profession to do unpaid overtime, there’s something not right,” she said.

Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser on employment relations at the CIPD, said employers should be encouraging healthy working practices and training managers to better manage workloads. “Workloads are consistently the biggest cause of stress at work and a key reason why millions of people are feeling the need to work unpaid overtime,” she said. 

“This is especially important for those working exclusively at home during the pandemic where the boundaries between work and home lives can be even more blurred.”

Will Stronge, director of Autonomy, urged the government to increase minimum wage to reflect the number of unpaid hours. He said key workers, and women in particular, have had very little respite from the constant burdens of work during the past year and unsustainably low pay is rife.

“While some elements of the economy have done very well out of the pandemic – the Amazons, the supermarkets and the food delivery sector – those workers who are keeping our society and economy running remain the worst affected,” he said. “It is only right that this changes, that the minimum wage is raised and that the government gets its priorities right."

O’Grady also called on the government to end the pay freeze faced by many key workers, and increase the public sector workforce to reduce burnout among workers. “We should thank the key workers who put in extra hours without any extra pay. At the budget, the chancellor should cancel the pay freeze and give every key worker a decent pay rise. It is what they have earned,” she said.