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Employment

'Burned out' Brits are working £26 billion worth of unpaid overtime a year

Today is “Work Your Proper Hours Day”, when workers are encouraged to finish on time - with the encouragement of their boss

What’s an extra 30 minutes at the end of each shift when you’re 'part of a family’? Image: Alexandr Podvalny / Unsplash

Workaholic Brits are staying late and working through their lunch breaks to hand their bosses an average of 7.4 hours of unpaid labour each week.

That equates to £7,200 a year of unpaid wages for the average worker, totalling £26 billion across the UK, according to new analysis of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Labour Force Survey by the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

A staggering 3.5 million people put in extra hours of work without pay in 2022, with legal professionals, chief executives, project managers, vets and, of course, teachers, the most likely to be working late.

Just hours before the research was released, environment secretary Thérèse Coffey sparked backlash by saying anyone who is struggling with the cost of living crisis should simply work more.

She said “one of the best ways” for people to boost their incomes is “potentially to work some more hours, to get upskilled, to get a higher income”, in response to a question from Labour MP Rachael Maskell on what the government is doing to ensure food security after food banks in York began running out of supplies.

It won’t come as a surprise to the nurses, ambulance workers, teachers and civil servants currently involved in industrial action that overtime is more common in the public sector, with one in seven workers doing unpaid overtime, compared to one in nine in the private sector. 

This means the government pocketed £8.6bn worth of unpaid overtime from public sector staff last year.

In a small piece of positive news, ​​unpaid overtime was slightly lower than in 2021, but with an increase from 2020 to 2021, there is no clear longer-term trend.

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Unpaid overtime is a form of “wage theft” and can even push pay below the minimum wage if you’re already earning a low salary. 

Wage theft is “a failure to pay a worker all that they are contractually owed for the labour power or the time that they have provided to an employer,” Nick Clark, principal investigator on Unpaid Britain, an organisation investigating unpaid holiday wages, told the Big Issue.

“If you’ve got a large workforce, if you only steal 20 minutes a day from every worker, over a year it adds up to a substantial amount of money,” said Clark. 

“You don’t have to steal a huge amount off a few people, you’re stealing a small amount off thousands on a regular basis. That’s where the millions are made.”

Britain is facing a recruitment crisis in sectors ranging from hospitality to hospitals, with employers struggling to fill around 1.1 million vacancies. Think tanks have calculated around a third of this shortfall is due to Britain’s exit from the EU, alongside British workers dropping out of work due to ill-health or early retirement in a phenomenon known as the “great resignation“. 

Unions have highlighted the impact being short staffed is having on staff who are experiencing burnout and stress as a result. 

“With staff shortages in many industries, work intensity and pressure to work longer days is a big problem”, said Paul Nowak, general secretary of the TUC. 

“Nobody minds putting in longer hours from time to time. But employers shouldn’t rely on unpaid overtime – that’s just exploitation.”

Striking nurses, paramedics and ambulance workers have highlighted the impact low pay has had recruiting and retaining workers to the profession, leaving too few workers to maintain patient safety. 

“Public sector workers put in more than 8 million hours a week of unpaid overtime. They can’t keep going on gratitude alone. Staff are becoming burnt out and leaving their professions”, Nowak continued. 

“Ministers must also set out plans to speed up recruitment to fill vacancies, so that the existing staff are not left working unpaid overtime to fill the gaps.”

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