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Staying Late at the Office | How Much Is Too Much?

Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

A man working at his laptop.

Do you find yourself sticking around at work past your set hours—not just occasionally, but regularly? Are you bringing work home more often than not? And when payday rolls around, are these extra hours missing from your paycheck?

If you’re devoted to your job, determined to advance, or simply stuck with more responsibilities than you can tackle in a workday, these scenarios might sound familiar. You’re aware your time is valuable and should be compensated. But it can be hard to set boundaries, especially when you believe in the mission of the organization and know the work needs to get done.

People with flexible hours, like those who work from home or on the road, are more likely to put in extra time, and so are those who work for smaller organizations or have previous nonprofit sector work experience.

Long-term effects of staying late

Though dedication is a great asset, taking on too much unpaid overtime might be counterproductive for both you and your organization in the long run.

  • Long hours become the new normal. The more often you stay late, the more others may take your extra labor for granted. Maybe this expectation didn’t start with you; the pattern of unofficial overtime hours might have been established long before you arrived. This tendency can affect an organization’s long-term planning. As budgets are calculated, for instance, organizations may count on future employees performing more work for less compensation.
  • Your attention span could suffer. Every individual has a different working style. But for many of us, the longer we work on the same project, the more we struggle to focus. After a while you might become less productive, despite dedicating more hours.
  • Other aspects of your life may be neglected. The elusive work-life balance can be tricky to achieve under the best of circumstances. If you wish you had more time to spend with loved ones, do things you enjoy, or just take care of the basics like eating and sleeping, you may need to get a handle on your work hours before your stress hits harmful levels.

Pinpoint the cause

Many people, whether they work in the social-impact space or not, struggle to keep their work hours reasonable. It's important to be aware of some larger, structural factors keeping folks at work past quitting time.

Thanks to the internet, the whole world can be the office. Global connection comes with several side effects. Work contacts may expect a quick response to emails and phone calls and you may feel pressure to reply, whether you’re physically at work or not. Some fields are more time-intensive than others, and if you serve a population whose needs follow more of a 24/7 timeline, it may feel impossible to shut off your "work brain."

Some organizations are just plain stretched for resources. Budget cutbacks, staff shortages, or a new influx of responsibilities from any direction can create an all-hands-on-deck atmosphere. Sometimes this situation is temporary, but other times it’s an organizational way of life.

If you’re the only one consistently staying late, though, the reasons could be more personal. You may have more responsibilities than your colleagues, and though most organizations strive for a balance so no one feels overloaded, this ideal can be trickier to achieve in reality.

Time management is a skill like any other, and it takes practice. Perfectionism often plays a role, too, since you may stay late out of pressure to get everything just right. Overtime could also be an attempt to prove your dedication to a supervisor, to colleagues, and even to yourself.

A realistic assessment of your goals and abilities can help you determine if you’re spreading yourself too thin for the wrong reasons.

How to scale back

  • Reflect on your priorities. Does the job tie into your long-term career goals and individual passions? Maybe investing a little extra time, even if it’s unpaid, is worth it to you personally. Or you may decide the effort would be better spent elsewhere.
  • Determine your level of stress. We all have different stress thresholds, and only you can know your own. If your organization is overwhelmed and you don’t see the extra work ending anytime soon, decide whether and how you want to set limits. Being chronically overworked, exhausted, and resentful isn’t healthy for you or those you work with.
  • Set goals when you arrive at work. Depending on your field and responsibilities, you may or may not have control over what happens in a workday. As much as you are able, decide what to accomplish that day and how long each task will take. Then stick to the plan! If other tasks come up, determine when you can complete them in the coming days and let people know.
  • Open up a dialogue with your supervisor and coworkers. Suggest a redistribution of responsibilities if you feel that you’re overloaded in comparison to others. If you’re the only one in the organization who has a particular skill, offer to train someone else. And if you don’t know how long you are expected to stay, ask. You can even request to get your set hours in writing. Of course, you'll want to be careful that in addressing this issue, you're not pointing any fingers or overly focusing on others.
  • Check in with others at the end of the day. A simple "I’m heading out," or "Is there anything you need before I leave?" communicates your plans so no one wonders where you are.

Is your overtime legal?

Those who find themselves working beyond 40 hours a week without pay may be owed overtime in the United States. Employees who are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) should receive time-and-a-half above their regular rate of pay for any hours above the 40-hour workweek.

The FLSA fine print covers employees under these circumstances:

  • Anyone whose organization engages in interstate commerce. This applies if any part of the organization’s work relies on interacting with people out of state.
  •  Anyone who works for a hospital or other business providing medical care, a school, or a government agency.

Many workplaces have labor law regulations posted in a public place, so see if your workplace has these laws displayed. You may also want to take a look at your state overtime laws, since each state differs.

When should you stay?

Sometimes the benefits of staying late outweigh the drawbacks. As long as the personal toll isn’t excessive, you may choose to stick around:

  • When it’s a team effort. From time to time everyone at work needs to give a little extra to accomplish a goal. If everyone pitches in equally, these projects can be rewarding.
  • When it works best for you. Maybe you’re most productive after everyone leaves or before everyone gets there. Or you prefer to complete tasks immediately rather than leaving them until the next morning. It’s worth asking if your organization will let you adapt your hours accordingly so you’re still working a reasonable amount of time.

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Amy Bergen profile image

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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