- Alex Christian
5 hours ago
Whether it’s getting emails late at night or getting calls early in the day, we work more hours than ever. So how did all these unpaid hours become part of the job?
When Eric started his first job as a junior assistant at an international law firm, he knew full well that the normal 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift rules don’t apply.
This Hong Kong-based company was very prestigious, but it burdened its workers with brutal workloads and made them work late into the night, and this was not negotiable.
“This is a given in the legal field,” says Eric. “Generally, lawyers don’t get paid for overtime. Sometimes, I’ve had to work all night.”
Now in Beijing, Eric has moved up the ladder, but some days until the next morning, the idea of traditional working hours is still a long way off.
“If I worked 40 hours a week that would be a light week for me,” says Eric. “My hours depend on the needs of my clients, and I don’t have the option to work fewer hours.”
In the UK, in the pre-pandemic period, more than five million workers averaged 7.6 hours a week, contributing to £35 billion worth of unpaid additional work.
Now, according to global figures from the Institute for Economic Research (ADB), one in 10 people says they work at least 20 hours a week for free.
On average, workers work 9.2 hours of unpaid overtime each week. Across the world, overtime numbers have risen sharply in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, with free hours more than doubling in North America in particular.
Telecommuting has exacerbated the problem. The average global working day has increased by about two hours, and research has shown that most employers in the UK admit that employees work overtime without pay each day.
Workers can attribute the increase in overtime to the disappearance of the lines between work and life; With the disappearance of commuting trips and work from offices and lunch breaks for many workers, the worker can receive emails while eating breakfast, deadlines extend into the evening, and meetings through the Zoom application extend into the early hours of the next day.
For many workers, continuing to work after the official time has ended has become the expectation rather than the exception, but this is rarely indicated explicitly, either orally or in writing. Instead, there is a tacit understanding between employer and employee: Forget about your contracted working hours, you can only sign out after you finish work that day.
But how did things get to this point, and what will happen next?
The coronavirus may have exacerbated the problem, but unpaid overtime has been a part of many jobs for decades. In the age of industry, employees had fixed weekly working hours, and working after working hours meant workers were paid overtime.
But by the mid-20th century, office culture flourished, swelling the number of salaried middle-class workers. And the number of jobs in which the performance of the worker is measured based on tangible production has decreased.
In modern workplaces, tasks can no longer be defined as precisely as on the factory floor; Ambiguity about when work is “ending” has led to the emergence of unpaid overtime.
Moreover, the fact that companies based their office hours based on the eight-hour workday in industry means that knowledge workers are already spending a significant amount of time in their offices.
“The kind of work that many of us do today – intense work in front of a computer screen – cannot be done cognitively for more than five hours a day,” says Abigail Marks, Professor of the Future of Work at Newcastle University Business School, UK. But despite this, working days gradually became longer and longer.
Grace Lordan, associate professor of behavioral sciences at the London School of Economics, highlights the 1980s as a turning point. In the United Kingdom, the economic policies of former Conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher promoted the idea of increasingly long working hours, and the same is true of Wall Street in the United States. If you want to get a big promotion, you have to dedicate yourself to the workplace, so overtime has become a status symbol.
“Basically, it’s down to a combination of signs that longer working hours are linked to productivity,” Lourdan explains. “In the 1950s, office workers would meet their family members for dinner. By the 1990s, they were lucky to be able to see them on holidays. weekend”.
With the advent of economic globalization, working hours were moving in only one direction, before technology accelerated this increase in the number of working hours. By 2010, everyone had a “digital cord” connecting them to their work in the morning, noon and night. Inboxes are always present, and work-related calls and messages have invaded the same communication tools people use for socializing.
“The smartphone was the tool that put a limit on working hours,” Marks says. “Once you put your work email on your phone, you’re always available. After that, people will get used to you.”
Since the outbreak of the Corona virus, remote work has created an environment in which managers can call employees around the clock. “I’m expected to respond to customer requests at any time,” Eric says. Although this no longer entails spending the entire night at work, the work into the early hours of the next day continues.
“Most of the time, I can coordinate with clients in different time zones. But if we’re closing a deal or a transaction, I might need to stay at work until late,” Eric adds.