Overwork is the expression used to define the cause of working too hard, too much, or too long. It can be also related to the act of working beyond one's strength or capacity, causing physical and/or mental distress in the process.
Compulsory, mandatory, or forced overtime is usually defined as hours worked in excess of forty hours per week “that the employer makes compulsory with the threat of job loss or the threat of other reprisals such as demotion or assignment to unattractive tasks or work shifts."
Voluntary overtime is work which the employer may ask the worker to do but which the worker is not required to work unless he agrees at the time to do so.
Compulsory overwork is that where the individual has no choice but to work more than their capacity. In other words, compulsory overwork is the lack of control that workers exercise over the boundary between work time and private time.
Forced overtime, heavy workloads, and frenetic work paces give rise to debilitating repetitive stress injuries, on-the-job accidents, over-exposure to toxic substances, and other dangerous work conditions. Nevertheless, some studies are beginning to show the costs of compulsory overwork. Reg Williams and Patricia Strasser, professors of nursing at the University of Michigan, estimated in the journal of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses that the total cost of depression at work was as high as $44 billion. They pointed out that healthcare workers have focused much attention on the workplace risk factors for heart disease, cancer, obesity, and other illnesses, but little emphasis on the risk factors for depression, stress, negative changes in personal life, and difficulties in interpersonal relationships.
Annual average work hours for Americans have risen from 1,679 in 1973 to 1,878 in 2000. This represents an increase of 199 hours—or approximately five additional weeks of work per year. This total work effort represents an average of nine weeks more than European workers. Therefore, it is within this logic of working more to gain more that workers are living a very hectic and tiring time to provide their families. The result in reality is an excess that does not often translate into high salaries. There are categories of workers where the work and the environments are unhealthy turning the most vulnerable workers and sentenced to fatigue and even living less.
The emotional impacts of overwork can vary, depending on the amount of work, levels of pressure and competition in the work space. Employees who worry about not getting work finished and keeping up a fast pace can feel like they are drowning in their workload, a feeling that manifests itself in chronic stress and anxiety, which can hebetate the spirit and create tension in personal and work relationships. The behavior continues even if the worker becomes aware that it is personally harmful — even harmful to the quality of the work. The stress that goes along with working too much has been shown to lead to substance abuse, sleep disorders, anxiety and ultimately to physical problems.
One of the key indicators that an individual is being overworked, and not merely challenged, is if work-related stress begins to take a toll on their physical health and general lifestyle. It is easy to distinguish different types of physical symptoms, such as getting sick frequently due to a weakened immune system, depression and insomnia. All these symptoms can cause more fatigue-related errors at work and affect their personal lives.
Compulsory overtime and overwork present a growing "convergence" between workers regardless of their occupation, income, education, race, gender, or citizenship. For example, in the United States, immigrants and other low-wage workers toil excessive hours in traditional sweatshops, such as garment factories, restaurants and other industry sectors. At the same time, exposes of "white-collar" and "electronic" sweatshops debunk the glamour of high-tech employment revealing large numbers of higher-paid skilled workers who work upwards of seventy to ninety hours a week under increasingly autocratic conditions.
With the steep rise in annual work hours for individuals and families, more than half of American workers report feeling overworked, overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do, and/or lacking in time to reflect upon the work they are doing. Overwork is attributable to several trends. First, the climb in annual family work hours since 1979 has coincided with an era of stagnant and falling wages. Annual family work hours have swelled primarily because unprecedented numbers of women have entered the full-time workforce, and those who were already in the workforce have taken on increased hours of work to boost family incomes. Without the increased work hours of women, lower-and middle-income families would have seen their incomes fall or at best remain stagnant. African American and Latino families, whose average hours of work grew faster than white families throughout the 1980s and 1990s, would have been especially hard hit.
Many immigrant workers are faced with the stark choice of complying with required overtime, increased workloads, and frenetic work paces, or being fired. Workers are pressured to compete with one another for longer hours to keep their jobs and avoid being replaced by workers who are more compliant with employer demands. Undocumented immigrant workers are particularly susceptible to demands for excessive hours. The threat of deportation, along with the criminalization of their work status, creates a climate of vulnerability that unscrupulous employers use to cheapen labor and extract more work.
The problem of overwork in Japan has become so acute that the term karōshi, literally means ‘death by overwork’ was coined a few years ago. The government estimates that 200 people die from karōshi every year because of heart attacks or cerebral hemorrhages due to long hours spent at the work place. However, karōshi does not include deaths from mental depression or suicides. If this was the case, the number of work related deaths would dramatically increase. Data compiled by the Japanese government shows that 22 percent of the public work more than 49 hours a week, compared to 11 percent of French and Germans.
Workers typically used less than half of their leave allowance in a year, according to a survey by the labour ministry which found that in 2013 employees took only nine of their 18.5 days average entitlement. A separate poll showed that one in every six workers took no paid holidays at all in 2013. In early discussions, employer groups proposed limiting the number of compulsory paid holidays to three days, while unions called for eight.
In 2016, the Japanese government finally decided to do something about the endemic culture of overwork, which has been blamed not just on a growing number of deaths, but also the country’s critically low birth rate and declining productivity. Although Japan is notorious for hard work, it’s equally known for inefficiency and bureaucracy. Workers sit around in the name of team spirit, despite questionable performance.
Government and policy markers
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