Working Overtime
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Working Overtime

on 05 November 2020

​Forced to work overtime and expected to work through your lunch break: when is it ok to say ‘no’? Just as long as the job gets done,” the boss will say. But with so many jobs, the work is of an ongoing nature and hence the job is never ‘done’.

Burnt out? Establish your rights

How do you establish your rights for overtime and rest breaks when you have a boss who lives for the job? Just as long as the job gets done,” the boss will say. But with so many jobs, the work is of an ongoing nature and hence the job is never ‘done’. How do you establish your rights for overtime and rest breaks when you have a boss who lives for the job?


Workaholics have a warped view of time. To them, staying late at the office is just the way it is. Their work is their identity, their raison d’etre. They quickly establish a norm whereby employees, the inner circle especially, are expected to follow suit and stay at least an hour after official closing time. Anyone who leaves on time is the butt of snide remarks and sarcastic comments such as ‘part-time today?’

The politics of overtime is a result of day-to-day exigencies and management styles. Employees who aren’t usually eligible for overtime pay are executives, administrators and professionals. However employees such as secretaries and personal assistants, who are so crucial to the success of most endeavours, don’t enjoy managerial salaries.

The overtime situation is difficult for the employee. If overtime is welcomed and remunerated, then all is well. But for the reluctant over timer, the balance is weighed heavily against him/her. How fair is it for employers to expect employees to work late? What can an employee do if he/she simply feels that their eight hours are enough? The international work scene is showing trends that are moving in the employees’ favour to not be obliged to work over and above the expected hours of work.

The interview is key

The company’s overtime policy should be stated during the interview process and laid down in the contract. The interview process is the time for everyone to put their cards on the table, speak about the regularity of overtime and any remuneration that comes along with the extra work. However, don’t be surprised if you put the cat among the pigeons by asking these questions. Many companies don’t have an official overtime policy, simply because no-one has ever brought it up.

Issues that should be tackled during this vital negotiation process are: the possibility of flexi-time, whether the office is under-staffed and if so, is this a situation that is going to be remedied in the short-term? Will there be a minimum compensation for overtime, and can overtime be refused? Can an employee come in late the following morning to compensate or will overtime hours be added to their vacation leave?

Over and out

Recent surveys carried out by the TUC show that nearly five million UK staff worked an average extra day a week in unpaid overtime in 2005.

Apart from the monetary factor, unwanted overtime can have serious health affects, too. While some amount of overtime is often operationally needed and desired by some employees, excessive or unwanted overtime hours can compromise safety, health and productivity. The costs of long working hours relate to an increased risk of heart attacks; diabetes; high blood pressure and mental illness; a greater risk of retirement disability; increased safety risks due to human error; lowered productivity and presenteeism; increased chance of turnover and absenteeism; and costs of potential liability issues and law suits.

Life outside the office

There is a lot of pressure on people today to work very hard. If they refuse overtime and are not in a union, they are not seen in a good light. The company comes first. Your family comes second. However, the employer needs to acknowledge the changing social environment we live in: life outside the four walls of work cannot be ignored.

Now that most women who have children are going out to work, their time outside the office is extremely precious because they are still the primary carers of children. Separated dads, too, may find that their duties towards their children deny them from the freedom to stay late at work, which they might have been able to do more freely when their wife used to take care of the kids.

Providing employees the right to refuse overtime hours can help reduce the incidence of role overload and work-family conflict. Most people don’t mind going the extra mile to finish a project on time and to help the boss out of a sticky situation. But when it happens on a regular basis, what can you do to complain without looking like a trouble maker and worse still, risk losing your job?

Take what’s rightfully yours

The overtime issue will probably also affect the taking of lunch and coffee breaks. If the heat is on, it is unlikely that employees will take what is lawfully theirs and stop for breaks.

Time for assertiveness, or sneakiness Let’s say that the norm is not to take lunch breaks, but instead to grab a sandwich at your desk, and this is bothering you. You don’t have the stamina of Samson, you have friends you’d like to meet up with during your lunch break, your bum is numb, your legs are jamming up and your eyes need a break from the computer monitor.

You can’t remember the last time you felt the sun on your skin during the day and your digestive system is playing up thanks to all of the rushed eating. You have errands to run; need to go to the bank or post office. You also simply want to get away from annoying colleagues and just need a break! You know your boss will expect you to continue as you’ve been doing (for maybe months or years) and you are shy or otherwise reluctant to actually broach the subject. One bold tactic is to simply leave the building on time, inform receptionists and the telephone desk and leave a note on your desk in case anyone comes looking. After a few weeks of doing this, it will be accepted that you simply are not available during the lunch break and you will wonder why you’d never done it before. But it does need courage. Creative employees can invent a bogus urgent doctor’s appointment just to get everyone else used to the idea of your not being around.

Avoiding legal action

Post EU membership, Malta’s ratification of the ’48 Hour’ Directive (93/104/EC) obliges employers to refrain from engaging employees on overtime against their will, where and if they exceed a 48 hour week.

This EU law seeks to ensure that workers’ health and safety is not put at risk because of long work periods, whether during the day or nights shifts. It lays down that the average working time for each seven-day period, including overtime, should not exceed 48 hours. This works out roughly at a working week of 40 hours plus 8 hours overtime.

Specifically, the law states that no employer may oblige a worker to work more than 48 hours a week “unless he has first obtained the worker’s agreement to perform such work”. A worker can still work overtime. But his or her consent is needed if the 48-hour-week is exceeded. Workers who refuse to work more than 48 hours may not be penalised or dismissed from work.

Lunch break is your time

The calculation of your working week hours does not include: breaks when no work is done, such as lunch breaks; time when you’re ‘on call’ away from the workplace; unpaid overtime where you volunteer to do so, for example, staying late to finish something off.

The regulations give you a right to one rest break during your working day. Lunch and coffee breaks qualify as rest breaks, although additional breaks might be given by your contract of employment. There is no statutory right to ‘smoking breaks’. The requirements are: the break must be in one block, it can’t be taken off one end of the working day – it must be somewhere in the middle, you are allowed to spend it away from the place on your employer’s premises where you work; your employer can say when the break must be taken, as long as it meets these conditions.

What to do if you can’t or aren’t allowed to take a break? If your job is organised so that you can’t take breaks, or if your employer doesn’t allow you to take them, you should first raise the matter with your boss. If you have an employee representative like a trade union official or health and safety representative, they can take up the matter for you. Ultimately you can make a claim to an Employment Tribunal, or to the Health and Safety Executive.

Who’s not covered by regulations?

Your working week is not covered by the Working Time Regulations if you work in the following areas: the armed forces and police civil protection workers (for example, firemen, ambulance workers, prison guards and coast guards dealing with emergencies), domestic servants in private houses, heavy-goods and coach drivers (but not route bus drivers) who have special rules, jobs where you can choose freely how long you will work, for example, a managing executive. If you work in one of these areas, your working week should be set out in your contract of employment.

Enough is enough

Unwanted, unpaid or excessive overtime is a source of workplace conflict. Often, longer hours add up to little more than stress and exhaustion. Many workers are entitled to overtime pay, but they don’t know the law. They care more about their reputation and less about the extra money, wanting to be perceived as professionals, not low-level, hourly wage hounds.

In general, overtime eligibility is determined by the duties and responsibilities of the job. A lot of workers could see an increase in their earnings if they just knew the rules and demanded that their employers followed them. Or get the same pay cheque and simply leave work on time. For many, that sounds like a dream come true.

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