Working overtime is unethical. I’m not talking about management demanding extra hours from you or office cultures that expect people to stay late. Those things are obviously unethical; it’s not even up for debate.
Instead, what I’m saying is that if you, individually, regularly make the choice to work overtime, that is an unethical choice.
How can I possibly claim this? How I choose to spend my time is my own business, and if I choose to spend it working, that should be good, right?
No. Consistently putting in overtime makes your work worse, and it creates unfair expectations for you and those around you. Instead of being celebrated, the choice to regularly work overtime should be seen for what it is: counterproductive and antisocial behavior.
Overtime Makes Your Output Worse
Study after study has found that the human brain can only handle a day or two of working late before the quality of their work dives down to the level of “pretty drunk”. When you’re perpetually tired, you aren’t at your best, and your work suffers for it. You may be checking more things off the todo list late at night, but odds are that you’re creating messes that others will have to clean up later, and which you wouldn’t have created if you’d been well-rested.
The insidious thing about this is that it feels more productive to keep working. In the moment, you can’t tell that what you’re doing is generating more work for your teammates or your future self. But the research is clear: it’s more productive in the medium and long terms to stay fresh and rested.
Now, I admit that I’ve worked with a number of people who seem to be able to put in regular overtime and still ship high-quality work. But if you’re that effective in crunch mode, just imagine how good your work would be on a normal schedule! It’s silly to kneecap yourself, even if you can still push things forward after having done so.
Overtime Sets Unfair Expectations For Your Team
People external to your immediate team see your team as a single entity. They may know the names and specialties of you and your teammates, and of course you might interact in other contexts where the organizational boundaries are different, but most of the time, communication and expectations flow to and from your team as a unit.
What this means is that how you behave sets expectations with those external people about how your whole team will behave. If you’re answering emails at 10:00pm, from the outside, that reads as “this team answers emails at 10:00pm.”
When you put in consistent overtime, overtime becomes expected behavior from not just you, but all of your teammates. It doesn’t matter if that’s not your intention; the effect is the same. Your choices impact more than just you. If your whole team has agreed, up front, to be available and working at all hours of the day, then so be it. But implicitly signing up others for things they didn’t agree to is unacceptable behavior.
What to do Instead
I get it, I really do. Work is addicting, especially when it’s interesting or challenging work. The feeling of being a hero is also addicting. Countless videogames are successful because they make the player feel heroic, like the fate of the world is resting on their shoulders. It’s a real rush to make something happen through sheer force of will and determination.
But you can be successful while still respecting yourself, your output, and your peers. It’s often not the case that things at work are as urgent as the person asking for them wants you to believe. Learn to identify the true urgency of things, and work with your colleagues to improve how you and they communicate about those urgencies.
How to deal with things that truly cannot wait is something that must be arranged ahead of time. If, for example, you’re on call to support a production system, that’s an explicit, negotiated part of your job. Providing on-call-style support that wasn’t negotiated in advance is unacceptable, and if you find yourself doing it, you should raise a red flag immediately and get your contract renegotiated.
When it feels like there is simply too much work to get done in the available time, realize that this is what almost every project feels like, because customers can cook up infinite demands. There is an enormous body of literature out there about handling the problems of defining, prioritizing, and scheduling work. If you try these techniques and customers are still demanding things faster than you can deliver them, the solution is not overtime; it’s talking to management, getting additional staffing, renegotiating contracts, or, in extreme cases, firing the unreasonable customers.
Take a Break
When you put in regular overtime, you gradually hurt yourself, your project, and your colleagues. Instead, step away from the computer, spend the evening recharging, and come back tomorrow to do a reasonable amount of work with a fresh mind. In the long run, everyone will be better off.