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Half of UK employees regularly work unpaid hours, survey finds

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Unpaid overtime appears to have become the norm in the UK, with new research revealing that millions of employees are regularly shortening their lunch breaks and finishing late to keep on top of their workload.

HR software provider Ciphr polled 1,000 UK workers to find out how much unpaid overtime, if any, they each worked on average. According to the findings, there are significantly more employees who work unpaid hours than employees who receive overtime pay (49% compared to 23%).

Among those who do regularly work unpaid overtime, the average time clocked up each week is just over three hours (184 minutes). Over a five-day work week, that’s around 37 minutes extra per shift.

Around one in nine (11%) of those surveyed are posting five additional, unpaid hours a week.

The employees most likely to work the longest extra hours unpaid include senior managers (averaging 4.1 hours a week), 25-34-year-olds (3.5 hours), remote workers (3.5 hours), and those working in legal services and education (4.1 hours and 3.9 hours respectively).

While many people – particularly salaried employees – typically expect, and accept, a certain degree of unpaid work as being part of their role, few may be aware of the full extent of how those extra minutes (over and above contracted hours) can add up when unpaid work is done too frequently.

For example, most people would probably agree that working the equivalent of 18 additional days (over 139 hours) a year for free seems excessive. Yet, that’s what the average employee in Ciphr’s survey is likely to work – if they continue to put in three hours of unpaid overtime every week as reported.

Shortening or skipping lunch appears to be one of the most common ways that employees overwork. In the week that Ciphr ran its survey, only a third (36%) of respondents had taken their full lunch break every day. Worryingly, as many as one in four (23%) had barely taken their full lunch break off that week at all.

If this pattern of overworking – through breaks and after hours – is left unchecked long term, it could negatively impact an individual’s health and wellbeing, and cause stress and job burnout. It could also lead to employee resentment, especially if the unpaid overtime that is being worked isn’t being done voluntarily or doesn’t feel very voluntary due to big workloads, understaffing, or unrealistic targets.

To help prevent overworking, it’s important to track how many extra minutes a day are actually being worked. Ciphr has devised a handy unpaid hours calculator, which employees can use to estimate how much time (and how many work days) they are potentially working in unpaid overtime a year: www.ciphr.com/unpaid-hours-calculator.

Claire Williams, chief people officer at Ciphr, says: “If an individual thinks they are doing too many unpaid hours, then it’s vital that they address this with their employer as soon as possible. Doing a bit of extra work occasionally is one thing – and it is relatively common practice to work additional hours, at times, to fulfil your role – but feeling like you ‘have’ to do that extra work regularly because it is being expected of you is quite another.

“The reality is that there are upsides, as well as obvious downsides, to people working extra hours. It doesn’t always need to be perceived as a negative and it can – and should – generate goodwill and flexibility from employers in return. Lots of people enjoy their jobs and want to do additional work. Sometimes, though, people simply want to finish what they’ve been working on that day to tick it off their to-do list.

“The issues occur when unpaid overtime is both very frequent and excessive, when employees aren’t taking enough breaks and the downtime they need, and when there’s a lack of recognition from an employer that there’s an underlying problem – usually, but not always, workload-related – that needs to be urgently addressed.

“This research serves as a good reminder on the importance of keeping track of employees’ working hours – mainly to help ensure that people are not working unreasonable hours, but also, as an organisation, that you’re not breaching Working Time Regulations. If regular overworking is a problem, and employees are raising their concerns, don’t ignore the situation – it’s definitely in an employer’s interest to understand what they can do to help, and make changes where possible, before it impacts an individual’s health and wellbeing, and, ultimately, the wider business. Employee pulse surveys, or quick temperature checks – like those available in Ciphr’s HR software – can help you understand the link between employee happiness and wellbeing, and overtime worked.”

The results of Ciphr’s unpaid overtime survey are available at www.ciphr.com/unpaid-overtime-statistics-2023. Ciphr’s unpaid hours calculator is available at www.ciphr.com/unpaid-hours-calculator.

Ciphr is a leading UK-based provider of integrated HR, payroll, learning and recruitment solutions. More than 600 organisations use the group’s people management solutions globally across the public, private and non-profit sectors.

For more information, please visit www.ciphr.com.

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