Overtime | When reasonable turns unreasonable

Well hello Shufflers, I’m back.  I didn’t fall off the face of the earth, but I have fallen to a lot of overtime at work.

It was this time last year that I wrote my very first post about retiring early, motivated by a final straw – a stint of unpaid weekend work.

I come back to this topic as I come to the end of 1 month being woken to the blistering sound of my alarm clock at 4:30am everyday – weekdays and weekends, except for public holidays. For the past several weeks, I have also been working 11 – 12 hour days. This includes 3.5 – 4.5 hours of ‘additional hours’ to my normal work day.

But enough of the painful details. How have I found myself in this predicament?

It all comes down to that unassuming few pages of a contract prepared by lawyers that you sign when you start a new job.

As a salaried worker, my employment contract has always informed me of my standard weekly hours, typically 38 hours. However those standard hours are also always followed by a phrase like:

“…and any reasonable additional hours required for you to complete your work. These additional hours have been taken into consideration when determining your salary.”

Or something else similar, but equally ambiguous.

Well hang on a minute. What is reasonable overtime? And when does it become unreasonable? These are questions that employers prefer not to be asked, as the wide, open tap of free-flowing overtime which produces value for their companies is basically depended upon to turn a profit.

Before I rant, first let me make one thing clear. I am in support of a capitalist system. I will also say that I find it reasonable that one’s pay should be based upon the work they produce and not the time that they put in. I find it ridiculous that two people get paid equally because they stick around for the same amount of time, despite producing wildly different results for their employers.

Now that is out of the way, let us get on to the ranting.

This unpaid overtime phenomenon is undoubtedly the result of capitalism running free with limited regulation.  Competition between companies to produce the same product or service at a lower cost  often results in individual employees putting in more work to get the job done.  Unpaid overtime can also be driven by competitiveness between employees to attain a raise or promotion.

Working in infrastructure construction, I often have very strict and tight time frames to meet. This usually means 12 hour construction shifts for around-the-clock work, with time to handover to the engineer coming in for the next shift.

I know that I don’t have it as bad as employees in other industries. Young lawyers put in an unbelievable amount of unpaid overtime, as do young doctors. I hope their passion is equal to the task and not eroded by the demands of their industry.

It seems that although some industries are on the extreme end of this cultural attitude, this is not at all an isolated occurrence. According to this ABC article, the average Australian employee puts in over 5 hours of unpaid work per week.

The original study that investigated unpaid work in Australia also estimated the value of this free overtime to be over AUD$130 billion per year. This is essentially a donation from employees to employers.

In my humble opinion, reasonable is the occasional 9 or 10 hour day to deal with an emergency. It is in my opinion that it’s also reasonable to have the occasional 6 or 7 hour work day or long lunch to deal with some personal administration or appointments.

Just like it would be unreasonable for a full-time employee to have a 6 hour work day every day, surely it is also unreasonable to have a 10 hour day every day.

Alas this is not the case.

The fact is, there is no legal definition in Australia to determine what ‘reasonable additional hours‘ is for a salaried worker. The Australian Fair Work Commission only takes into consideration the following factors when determining what is reasonable:

  • any risk to health and safety from working the extra hours;
  • the employee’s personal situation, including their family responsibilities;
  • the needs of the workplace;
  • if the employee is entitled to receive overtime payments or penalty rates for working the extra hours;
  • if they are paid at a higher rate on the understanding that they work some overtime;
  • if the employee was given enough notice that they may have to work overtime;
  • if the employee has already stated they can’t ever work overtime;
  • the usual patterns of work in the industry.

Still incredibly ambiguous if you ask me. It’s way too easy for every employer to just slip that phrase in every contract as a matter of course to protect themselves in the future.

This may seem like a pointless rant, but I do find value in reminding myself occasionally that many organisations are clearly in it to produce value for themselves. I don’t mean this in a bad or derogatory way. That is simply the reality of maintaining a successful company that produces value for it’s customers and shareholders. It should not surprise any of us, nor should we be naive enough to expect any different.

My particular goal is to earn an ever-increasing amount of money so to accelerate my path to financial independence. My choices and actions should reflect this end. So I will continue to put in these long hours in the hope of acquiring a raise or bonus. I will do it now while I still have the time, passion, energy and interest in my work. I will remember that a profitable company should reward it’s hardest workers. If the company outperforms financially and I played a role in that (by outperforming financially on the individual construction projects I am delivering) then I am absolutely fair in my expectation to receive some of those additional profits through a raise or bonus.

This also serves as additional motivation. Part of the overall goal of financial independence is to have the freedom to work on your own terms. For those that absolutely love their work, that may include back to back 12+ hour days in the short term. I however doubt that this is sustainable for anyone in the long term, regardless of the passion they may have. I also know that it is unsustainable for me in the long term.

Earlier I wrote about how I was enjoying my work. I now write this to recentre myself after a hard, long month of producing a lot of value for my employer and remind myself that working constantly is not the only way to live.

Shuffling toward financial independence.

Pat the Shuffler

8 Replies to “Overtime | When reasonable turns unreasonable”

  1. Ouch. No wonder your thinking of getting out. That sounds unreasonable to me. I did long hours in my thirties that I couldn’t do now in my mid forties with a family however I didn’t save enough to retire early. Im going through a rough patch at work and the only thing maintaining my sanity is I’ve started saving to retire early. Hang in there pat.

    1. Focusing on ones goals does make things much easier. If the only light at the end of the tunnel was retirement at 65, I would probably not last very long in sort of extreme work situation.

  2. Screw that Pat! I wouldn’t be relying on your employer to do the right thing by you at all. I agree employers ‘should’ reward their hardest workers and remember that, like everything in life, it’s give and take. If you’re giving more than you’re getting, I’d consider talking to your employer about it and if they don’t like it, leave. Turnover is a killer for profits unless they’re psychopathic or self-destructive most employers won’t like to see their hardest workers walk. My suggestion would be to talk to your employer about the amount of overtime you’ve been putting in and asking whether they consider this reasonable. Mention that you’re worried about its long-term adverse impacts on you and your health and see if you can get them to define ‘reasonable’ for you. Then you can make a clear call on whether this place is right for you or not.

    You’re pursuing FI because you want the control with what you do with your time. Why not set yourself on the path from the start and put a bit of control back in your hands with the amount of overtime you’re doing? Employers do not have their employees over a barrel unless the employees allow it to happen. If the employees are happy to ‘take one for the company’, in most cases the company will happily oblige. As you correctly point out, that’s how they keep the money rolling in.

    I hope FI Pat won’t look back on current Pat and feel regret about your actions… whatever they end up being.

    1. Chris

      You are correct. We have annual salary reviews in May, anything short of a significant raise and I am out of there. I do like the company and the team I work with, but I just need to make sure that I am being rewarded for my efforts and results. I have managed to get a 4-day weekend starting today though! so I am pretty happy about that.

      I think the work hours are just the work hours, we couldn’t reduce the hours even if we wanted to. I am not typically toiling away in the office for those hours, I am on site trying to make sure we meet strict time frames that are imposed by the client/state government/commuting public. It becomes even more complicated because I am the one that sets those work hours for all the workers on site.So I could just call it an 8 hour day everyday, but the work wouldn’t be done on time, the typical construction worker would look for work elsewheree because they expect (depend upon due to over leverageing and lifestyle inflation) minimum 10hr shifts (they get paid by the hour) leaving me with huge staffing problems and the longer we are mobilised on site the more the project costs typically (fixed site costs). So I just would not be effective at my job in any way if that was the attitude I adopted.

      I don’t mind doing what is needed to get the job done as successfully as possible, as I enjoy the success and wouldn’t gain as much job satisfaction otherwise. I just need some regular breaks and want to make sure the reward matches those efforts.

      It’s a slightly different situation to the typical over worked office worker who is just given to much work and not enough staff to get that work done.

      I kind of take a slightly different view, I know that my work time is short by comparison to others, so I want to make the most of that short work time, succeeding and increasing my earnings etc. Whereas those with 40 year careers really need to remember they are running a marathon and apply themselves appropriately.

    1. I am right there with you. If I ever actually worked a 37.5 hr week, it would feel positively luxurious compared to what I do now. FIRE ASAP

  3. That’s rough Pat.

    It’s entirely different if the overtime is optional, but when it’s more or less forced it’s just not an enjoyable way to live for any sustained period.

    Am I right in thinking there’s a bit of a labour shortage over there in Sydney at the moment, especially in the construction/infrastructure sector?

    If so, maybe you have a fair amount of negotiating leverage?

    1. There is a lot of infrastructure being built at the moment so the industry is looking for people. This does bode well for my negotiating power.

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