Why do we keep working for free?

Published date
Today is Work Your Proper Hours Day – a day the TUC created two decades ago to draw attention to the huge problem of unpaid overtime.

Workers in Wales did a shocking £633.7m worth of unpaid overtime last year. For the nearly one in 10 who worked unpaid overtime, this meant losing out on £5,819 on average – enough to buy the sort of incredibly luxurious holiday you need after all that work! 
Few people would say “yes” if they were asked to work for free, so why do we keep doing it?

Greater risk

The likelihood of working unpaid overtime increases depending on what job you’re in and what sector you work in. 
The TUC’s research found that teachers top the list for both the proportion of staff doing unpaid overtime (40%) and the average weekly overtime across all employees (4.4 hours). 
Chief executives, managers and directors also feature strongly, including in sectors like health, social care and logistics. It is also notably higher in the public sector, and far higher in other parts of the UK compared to Wales.

Legal weakness

One of the reasons why there is such a persistent problem of unpaid overtime is that the law is relatively weak in this area. Employers are only required to keep “adequate” records of hours worked.

The European Court of Justice ruled that employers should establish an “objective, reliable and accessible system” for recording hours in 2019, but the UK Government has failed to legislate on this. 

Workplace culture

The fact that many of the occupations at greater risk of unpaid overtime are more senior roles suggests that their additional responsibilities are not properly managed by employers. This can contribute to a culture whereby the expectation becomes that people do unpaid overtime. 

And this isn’t just an issue for higher-paid workers. Research into hospitality workers’ everyday experiences found that unpaid overtime was common, along with other examples of wage theft like free trial shifts. 

I once went on a mental health training course where the trainer described actions like working unpaid overtime as “acts of harm to ourselves”. You might not agree with this take, but laws on working hours have been introduced because of the harm of long working hours.

Increasing work intensity and burnout are growing problems for workers, who are working harder and longer now compared to previous years. More than half (55%) of workers feel that work is getting more intense and demanding (according to TUC polling from 2023), and 3 in 5 (61%) workers say they feel exhausted at the end of most working days.

If you’re worried about the hours your working and the effect of work on your well-being, there is lots of help available. The NHS offers advice and links to resources, you can speak to your trade union rep and, if you feel comfortable, your manager about the pressures you are under. 

As Sarah Jaffe put it, work won’t love you back so make sure you’re taking care of yourself.