Increasing productivity is a major mechanism to increase profitability, so it makes sense that productivity would be a major concern for many business leaders. In that context, the prevalence of after-hours work and overtime might seem like a positive, at least in the short term. But the practice of after-hours working could risk a major detrimental impact on productivity longer-term.

UK productivity is a major challenge

The UK already lags behind most of Europe on productivity. Our productivity score is only 102, compared to Ireland’s 133 points, Romania’s 132, and Norway’s 130, as a handful of examples.

Moreover, UK productivity growth has been stagnating for fifteen years, since the global financial crisis. Data shows that UK productivity is 24% lower than it would have been if it followed a pre-crisis trajectory. Wages and living standards would follow suit, given that productivity increase is a major mechanism for freeing capital for wage increases.

Ultimately, this throws the productivity question into sharp relief. Where productivity is already low, organisations can ill-afford to see productive output further plummet.

That means the impact of any emerging people trend on productivity is likely the first question on most leaders’ agenda. This is one of the major points for debate around returning to the office, for instance, or allowing home-based working. Likewise, it’s one of the major arguments for increasing investment into employee reward and recognition.

The same is true of after-hours work. What impact do longer and longer hours, often taking the form of unpaid overtime, have on productivity? Does working longer really translate into working better?

After-hours working is widespread across the UK

Given the UK’s lagging productivity rate, you might expect our working hours to follow suit. That’s not the case.

What is after-hours working?

After-hours working refers to work conducted outside the employee’s agreed working hours – like before work, after work, or at weekends.

Common examples include office workers answering work emails in the evening or teachers preparing lesson plans and marking students’ work over the weekend. For example, one 2022 study found that three-quarters of Brits check their work email outside work, both when they’re sick and when they’re attending appointments.

Some employers might offer overtime pay for these additional hours of work but there’s no automatic legal right to this. It’s the employer’s choice and must be outlined in the written statement of employment.

Analysis from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) last year shows that UK workers worked £26 billion of unpaid overtime throughout 2022. Some 3.5 million people did unpaid overtime over the year, putting in an average of 7.4 unpaid hours a week. That’s equivalent on average to £7,200 of wages annually going unpaid for those workers.

Why does unpaid overtime happen?

There are many reasons an employee might work longer hours than normal. For example:

  • Final sprint to get a big project over the line
  • Conflicting time-zones making after-work hours more convenient
  • Colleague absences increasing normal workloads
  • Events that happen or continue after-hours
  • Urgent problems that need out-of-hours attention

But perhaps that also highlights part of the problem: there are so many reasons an employee might need to work after-hours.

Typically, organisations might not consider these scenarios an issue if they’re the exception not the rule. However, if these scenarios become common, it can speak to more fundamental problems.

For example:

  • Organisational design and strategic workforce planning : are there the right number of people with the right skills in the right places to deliver?
  • Performance management and culture: are people sufficiently motivated, engaged, and equipped with the tools to perform as you’re expecting?
  • Manager and team relationships : do people feel they can say ‘no’ to extra work, or do they feel obligated? Do they feel under pressure to be available?
  • Absenteeism and turnover: are you maintaining the active headcount to deliver the required output you’d projected?

Even if employees find overtime situations fulfilling, exhilarating, or rewarding (which leaders certainly can’t count on), the consistent requirement for overtime is often testament to broader organisational problems. Problems that likely have a negative organisational impact now – or will do, if left unchecked.

How does over-work impact productivity?

Employees working beyond their standard hours might initially seem like a positive for productivity.

Productivity growth means increasing your output (goods and services) for the same input (people and time). In the short-term, then, after-hours working can be an example of productivity growth. You’ve got the same resources – people – to achieve more.

But the real question is, is this sustainable long-term?

Productivity might be a major concern for business leaders but are we prioritising today at the cost of tomorrow? Many statistics suggest so.

YouGov data finds that 52% of British adults feel stressed at work, for example. According to the CIPD:

‘Stress can place immense demands on employees' physical and mental health and affect their behaviour, performance and relationships with colleagues. It's a major cause of long-term absence from work.’

The UK is facing a burnout epidemic, which has long-term consequences for employees, teams, organisations, and the British economy as a whole.

Over-work isn’t the only culprit – but it’s a major contributing factor. For instance, Slack's Workforce Index 2022 found that employees who log off at the end of the workday register 20% higher productivity scores than those who feel obligated to work after hours.

Statistics like this show that working after-hours might have a short-term impact on productivity but long-term, it's less likely to be beneficial and can even cause problems.


Productivity would likely come near the top of most C-suite leaders’ priority lists, as a major mechanism to increase profitability (and revenue, shareholder profits, and all those positive things).

But taking a short-term outlook at the risk of long-term impact might not be wise. After-hours working as the exception is one thing, but when the exception becomes the rule it might be worth leaders considering the culture the organisation is fostering. Allowing after-hours work and overtime to become the norm can risk long-term workforce health.