Something for nothing | Staff worked £27bn worth of unpaid overtime last year

Staff worked £27bn worth of unpaid overtime last year

UK employers gained unpaid overtime from their staff worth a whopping £27billion last year, according to new research from the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

The TUC found that 3.8million people worked overtime in 2021, putting in an average of 7.6 unpaid hours – or a full day – per week. That works out at £7,100 a year of unpaid work, according to UK average rates of pay.

Last year was an unusual working year in many respects, with many workers furloughed and a strong trend towards remote and hybrid working. However, far from offering workers more flexibility and freedom, it seems that the blurring of the boundaries between work and personal life created by remote working has in fact led to workers putting in more hours. The BBC reported that overwork figures rose sharply across the entire globe in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

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“For many workers, keeping switched on beyond closing time has become the expectation rather than an exception,” Alex Christian wrote in an article for the BBC. “But it’s rarely explicitly spelled out verbally, let alone in writing. Rather, it’s a tacit understanding between employer and employee: forget contracted hours, you can only log off once you’re done for the day.”

Commenting on the TUC findings, Frances O’Grady, Head of the TUC, said: “During the pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in unpaid hours worked at home. With homeworking expected to stay higher after the pandemic, it is important that employers respect rights to clock-off and switch-off at home. Ministers should help by bringing in new rights to flexible working for everyone, including a right to switch-off outside working hours.”

Working overtime

The TUC research found that teachers are a key group of employees who are regularly working overtime; faced with the challenges of keeping schools open and hybrid teaching during the pandemic, working overtime has become the norm. Directors and managers also featured highly on the TUC’s list of employees who put in many hours of unpaid overtime.

Research from Just Eat for Business last month showed that over a third more workers are now skipping lunchbreaks, with one in five workers saying they struggle to switch off from work in the evenings or on annual leave. While employers may believe they're benefitting from the extra unpaid hours their staff are putting in, this behaviour can lead to stress, exhaustion and burnout – the Just Eat for Business research also found that more than half of British workers (56%) always or sometimes experience burnout.

The TUC pointed out that working for free should not become an expectation among employers. “Most of us are happy to put in some extra time when it’s needed, but we should get that time back when it’s quieter. Nobody should end up doing work they don’t get paid for,” O’Grady added.

Calls on the Government

The TUC are calling on the Government to work with the unions to fix the recruitment and retention crisis in the public sector. They’re also calling for more funding for training, Fair Pay agreements for low paid sectors, and the bringing forward of the long-promised employment bill, which the TUC hopes will strengthen protections against over-working and burnout, and include a day-one right to flexible working.

“[T]oday we’re calling on people to take your full lunch break and go home on time,” O’Grady said. “And we’re calling on managers to encourage their staff to finish on time and to lead by example.

“Britain is now facing both labour shortages and a cost of living crisis. If the Government does not take action to supporter workers, they will end up working longer hours for less pay.

“The Chancellor should use his spring statement to set out plans to tackle labour shortages in public services, and to fund training where there are skills shortages. And he should come forward with a plan to get wages rising across the economy.”

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