23 August 2021

How can HR avoid creating a culture of overworking?

The pandemic resulted in many employees working longer hours than needed. To avoid this from happening in the first place, HR should follow these four steps


Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir worked as a content marketing writer at Ciphr from 2019 to 2021.


Future of Work Health and wellbeing Leadership and management


The pandemic resulted in many employees working longer hours than needed. To avoid this from happening in the first place, HR should follow these four steps

When working from home, UK workers have increased their working week by almost 25% and are taking shorter lunch breaks, working through sickness, and unable to separate work and leisure time. More and more employees are overworking to the point of burnout, which is why a report from the thinktank Autonomy has called for two amendments to be made to the Employment Rights Act 1996. These amendments want to ensure workers have the right to fully disconnect from all work communications outside working hours and bring employment tribunals for any breach of that.

In countries like Japan, the culture of overworking is nothing new. The karoshi culture (which means death by overwork) has seen many Japanese workers commit suicide due to being overworked, but Japan is no longer the only country where workers’ mental health is suffering as a result of working too much.

In March, a survey by first-year analysts at Goldman Sachs found that employees averaged 95-hour workweeks and slept five hours a night. Employees in organisations of all sizes are facing increased demands from employers despite more of a focus being put on a work-life balance. As a result of overworking, employees are likely to experience a lack of sleep, increased blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack or stroke, and are more likely to make mistakes at work.

Culture of overworking

Many of us today overwork due to a whole variety of reasons.

Rob Baker, founder of Tailored Thinking – a business and performance consultancy – says: “One reason why people overwork is because they have bought into the company mission and don’t want to let themselves or anyone else down. They may be energised and engaged at work, but as a result of this motivation, they end up overworking.”

Another reason for overworking is due to employers’ unrealistic expectations of workloads.

Baker adds: “From an organisational perspective, there may be a mismatch between the work that employees have and the ability to deliver on it. Employers may try to solve this problem by getting employees to work longer hours – paid or unpaid. This then leads to employees being rewarded or recognised for working longer hours, which leads to more overworking.

“Employers may say that the way that you demonstrate you are committed to the organisation is through your working hours and not your output.”

Others, however, may feel insecure in their job roles and feel the need to prove themselves by overworking. For some, the stress of having to pay off student loans and rent may be their motivator to work longer hours.

The reason for overworking can be different for each individual, but employers and HR teams need to address all of these different reasons and take action to avoid creating a culture of overworking – here are four steps HR can take.

1. Help managers to lead by example

Gemma Dale, senior HR professional, says managers need to be aware of the impact they have on the actions of fellow employees.

“When we consider the reasons that employees take absences due to stress or anxiety, their relationship with their manager is often one of the leading causes. Managers cast a shadow – if they are seen to work excessively then this will send a signal to their teams that this is how to work your way up and be successful.

As a result, HR should make managers aware that they need to avoid overworking if they want employees to do the same.

Dale says HR can do this by “ensuring that managers are appropriately educated in wellbeing issues, including burnout, the impact of poor working cultures and how to spot the signs of overwork and poor wellbeing. HR then need to educate managers on how to address such issues and promote healthy organisational cultures.”

2. Educate your workforce on the impact of overworking

It’s not just managers who need to be educated on the impact overworking can have. If you want to avoid creating a culture of overworking, everyone in the workforce needs to know what overworking is and how they can avoid it.

HR teams, for example, also need to be aware of what overworking can look like.

Baker says: “HR should look at the hours employees are working and whether or not they are taking annual leave. In the current climate, maybe a lot of people are stockpiling leave because they can’t go abroad but HR should be encouraging all employees to take a break and have time off.”

Once HR has educated themselves, they should look at ways to help the rest of the workforce recognise overworking.

“It’s important to provide information in a range of different ways to meet different learning needs – webinars, online information, in-house wellbeing champion teams and formal training can help in different ways. These are all ways to engage employees with wellbeing and mental health.  Burnout and overworking can be just one of these subjects,” says Dale.

3. Focus on behaviour, not policies

While it’s easy to create company policies which state that your organisation doesn’t support employees overworking, these policies aren’t likely to avoid creating a culture of overworking.

As a result, HR teams need to focus on employee behaviour.

“Policies won’t change behaviour, they will just create more rules and procedures,” says Dale.

“While some may argue that policies around out of hours working or a right to disconnect can be helpful, they also take away personal autonomy and can be counterproductive, leading to unintended consequences. Instead, HR should focus on promoting good working practices, tackling presenteeism directly and focusing on employee wellbeing throughout the organisation.”

4. Communicate with employees

Do you know why your employees are overworking? Have employees reached out to each other to ease workloads?

HR teams need to openly communicate with employees to find out why exactly employees are overworking, and what can help them avoid this.

Baker says: “HR should share stories of managers and employees in the organisation who used to overwork, and who are now sharing the ways that they have achieved a good work/life balance. This could be a story from a senior leadership leader on how they’re taking action to balance work and their personal life or an employee who experienced burnout and is trying to remedy it.”

By encouraging employees to be open and vulnerable with each other, HR can show employees that overworking is common and that it can be tackled in ways that are positive to the individual and the organisation.