How much overtime is too much?

Overtime is often a necessity in many jobs to meet deadlines and achieve business objectives. However, working excessive overtime hours can take a toll on employees’ health, wellbeing and productivity. So when does overtime cross the line from being productive to being detrimental? Here is an in-depth look at the risks of overtime and how to set healthy boundaries.

What counts as overtime?

Overtime refers to any hours worked beyond the standard work week, which is typically considered to be 40 hours. However, overtime policies can vary between industries, companies and jurisdictions. Some key points about overtime:

  • Overtime eligibility often depends on whether an employee is exempt (salaried) or non-exempt (hourly) under labor laws.
  • Non-exempt employees are typically entitled to overtime pay at 1.5 times their regular hourly wage for any hours over 40 in a workweek.
  • Exempt salaried employees may work overtime without extra pay in many cases.
  • Some companies track overtime for exempt employees and offer comp time or flexible work arrangements.
  • Overtime may apply beyond an 8 hour day in some places, such as California.

What are the risks of excessive overtime?

While some overtime can be beneficial to meet acute needs, regularly working excessive overtime hours can negatively impact employees in several ways:

Health risks

  • Increased stress, which takes a toll on both mental and physical health.
  • Higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety.
  • Disrupted sleep cycles, which impairs cognitive functioning.
  • Increased unhealthy behaviors like lack of exercise, poor eating habits and drinking.

Work performance risks

  • Decreased productivity and effectiveness due to mental exhaustion.
  • Higher error rates and safety incidents.
  • Reduced innovation and critical thinking as focus narrows.
  • Less collaboration and connection with colleagues.

Personal and family risks

  • Less quality time spent with family, friends and on personal interests.
  • Missing important events and milestones due to work conflicts.
  • Strain on relationships due to stress and being overworked.
  • Difficulty fulfilling caregiving and parenting responsibilities.

What counts as excessive overtime?

There is no magic number for how much overtime is too much, since it depends on the individual and context. However, research suggests health and performance impacts start to accrue rapidly beyond 50 hours per week or 10 hours per day:

  • Working more than 12 hours per day consistently is linked to a 37% increased risk of cardiovascular death compared to those working 8-10 hours a day.
  • Those working over 55 hours per week have a 33% higher risk of stroke and a 13% increased risk of heart disease than those working 35-40 hours.
  • Productivity and performance typically declines after 50 hours in a week, with decreased output and more errors.
  • Critical thinking skills begin to falter after 8-10 consecutive hours of work.

Based on such evidence, a general rule of thumb is to limit overtime to no more than:

  • 10 hours per day
  • 50 hours per week
  • A couple consecutive weeks at most

Going beyond these thresholds consistently can signal excessive overtime that takes an unnecessary toll on workers.

How should overtime hours be tracked?

Careful tracking of overtime hours is important for both employees and employers to maintain reasonable standards. Here are some tips for tracking overtime:

  • Use standardized timekeeping practices across the organization to ensure accuracy.
  • Track daily overtime separately from weekly overtime to spot unhealthy patterns.
  • Document overtime compensation policies if non-exempt employees work overtime.
  • Keep overtime records for several years in case audits or investigations occur.
  • Provide overtime reports to managers and allow employees to review their hours.
  • Use overtime reports to identify problem areas and opportunities to improve resource planning.

Automated time tracking systems and project management software can help streamline overtime tracking and analysis. However, a clear policy is still needed on what constitutes excessive overtime worth intervening on.

What are the alternatives to excessive overtime?

Rather than defaulting to excessive overtime as the solution, businesses should explore alternatives when faced with increased workloads, deadlines or staffing gaps. Healthier options include:

Increase staffing

  • Hire additional temporary or permanent staff to handle increased workloads
  • Use freelancers, contractors or outsourcing to supplement capacity
  • Pay current staff overtime rates to voluntarily work extra hours

Improve resource planning

  • Review project plans and staff allocations to remove inefficiencies
  • Stagger project timelines when there are resource conflicts
  • Revisit priorities to eliminate unnecessary work

Enhance productivity

  • Provide training on time management, tools and automation
  • Allow flexible schedules to maximize staff energy and focus
  • Evaluate and improve processes to increase efficiency

Reset expectations

  • Have open conversations about workload capacity
  • Clearly define essential and nonessential work
  • Renegotiate deadlines or reduce scope if necessary

Taking a solutions-focused approach can help limit overtime while still achieving business goals. The key is being proactive and willing to have candid conversations about priorities and capacity.

What are some policies for limiting overtime?

Organizations should develop formal policies around overtime to set standards on when extra hours are allowed and how much is too much. Components can include:

  • Definition of overtime: Such as over 8 hours per day or 40 hours per week
  • Authorization procedures: Outline who can approve overtime and how employees request it
  • Limits per day/week/month: Caps on allowable overtime in different periods
  • Use of comp time: Provisions to earn time off instead of overtime pay
  • Overtime pay rates: Premiums paid for hourly non-exempt employees
  • Refusal protections: Right to decline overtime without retaliation
  • Review processes: Triggers for executives to review and remedy excessive overtime

Clearly articulated policies enable better oversight while setting fair standards across the organization. Make sure policies comply with any labor laws on overtime compensation and break requirements.

How can managers control overtime?

Proactive management is key to controlling overtime before it gets out of hand. Effective strategies include:

  • Lead by example – Leave on time yourself and don’t email after hours
  • Act early – Address poor time management early before overtime becomes a habit
  • Check assumptions – Don’t assume overtime is unavoidable. Explore other options.
  • Review capacity – Assess staff bandwidth regularly to plan ahead
  • Improve schedules – Stagger shifts and adjust hours to maximize focus
  • Watch trends – Analyze overtime reports to spot problem areas
  • Have dialogues – Maintain open communication about workload and priorities
  • Show appreciation – Recognize staff efforts and sacrifices

With empathy, flexibility and data-driven changes, managers can curb excessive overtime for a healthier workplace.

How can employees avoid overwork?

Employees also have an important role to play in avoiding overwork by:

  • Tracking hours carefully each day and week
  • Learning to say no to non-essential requests
  • Communicating clearly about workload and capacity
  • Taking all lunch and rest breaks to recharge
  • Using vacation time regularly to unwind
  • Leaving promptly at the end of each workday
  • Turning off notifications and avoiding work emails after hours
  • Saying no to off-the-clock work communications
  • Using time management techniques to work smarter
  • Asking for deadline extensions or help when needed

Employees should also know their rights under labor laws and feel empowered to speak up if excessive hours are required. Self-care is a skill to continually strengthen too.

What are signs of an overworked culture?

Some warning signs that a workplace culture is promoting unhealthy overwork include:

  • Working overtime is an expectation, not an occasional exception.
  • Leaders and managers routinely work excessive hours.
  • Efforts to protect personal time are frowned upon.
  • Taking vacations and sick days is discouraged or made difficult.
  • People frequently work nights, weekends and holidays.
  • Strict attendance policies with no exceptions for needs outside work.
  • High rates of burnout, exhaustion and health concerns.
  • Work-life balance is viewed negatively.
  • No boundaries on invasive work communications.
  • Limited investment in people, resources or efficiencies.

These cultural warning signs suggest an environment where overwork is normalized, celebrated and perhaps implicitly or explicitly required. But excessive overtime should not come at the cost of health, ethical standards or legal compliance.

How can organizations foster a healthier culture?

Instead of an overworked culture, companies should strive for a high-performance culture that honors workload balance. Ways to cultivate this include:

  • Offer flexibility in schedules to aid work-life balance.
  • Encourage and role model healthy habits like taking breaks, unplugging and recharging.
  • Have open dialogues on workload capacity, priorities and wellbeing.
  • Provide wellness benefits like employee assistance, stress management resources and annual checkups.
  • Celebrate output and outcomes, not hours worked.
  • Design processes for efficiency and automation.
  • Reward balance, not just overwork. Promote collaborative cultures over competitive ones.
  • Train managers on leading without overwork and identifying burnout.
  • Staff appropriately to avoid routine over-reliance on overtime.
  • Model healthy limits from the top-down.

While some overtime spurts may happen, they should be the exception, not the norm. Companies serious about wellbeing will take a holistic approach.


Overtime is a complex issue that requires careful balancing of employer needs, employee wellbeing and business priorities. While limited overtime can help manage short-term increases in workload, regularly relying on excessive overtime is unsustainable and unethical. Instead, overwork should be minimized through better planning, increased staffing, process improvements, resource prioritization and strengthening of workplace culture. With mutual understanding and proactive solutions, companies can meet objectives without extreme overtime taking an unnecessary toll on their people.

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