What is Hidden Overwork and How is it Affecting Employees?

Written by: Lucy Walters
Published on: 30 Jan 2023

Hidden OverworkBurnout amongst workers is on the rise, with 38% of people in a 2022 study experiencing burnout at work, reporting feelings of exhaustion, reduced efficacy, and cynicism. Burnout has become particularly challenging for remote workers, with the same study finding that those working from home more than 80% of the time are the group most likely to experience this, with this group also receiving the lowest level of organisational support.

One cause of burnout amongst employees is hidden overwork, a trend that is becoming more prevalent with the current economic climate which is putting many workers under increasing amounts of pressure to perform well at work.

In this article, we look at what hidden overwork really looks like, how it may be impacting life science employees, and what employers can do to help.

What is Hidden Overwork?

Hidden overwork is the extra work employees complete under the radar and often in their own time to get ahead at work. Unlike overtime which typically sees employees working longer hours to get their work done or drive a project to completion, overwork is more concerned with what employees are doing outside of their non-work-specific tasks. This is the work that they haven’t been assigned as part of their official job duties, but work they feel obliged to carry out to stay ahead of their peers and advance their careers.

Hidden overwork can take many forms, including doing the following outside of work hours:

  • Listening to lots of work/industry-related podcasts
  • Reading lots of work/industry-related articles, books, and news
  • Communicating with employees at all hours
  • Scrolling through LinkedIn and networking on weekends, days off, and even holidays
  • Up-skilling by completing training courses and other qualifications to get ahead
  • Doing extra preparation for meetings/upcoming projects
  • Scheduling emails in advance to provide more free time to focus on work during the week ahead
  • Keeping on top of emails at all hours to create more focus time during the working week
  • Attending lots of work/industry-related events and webinars

Whilst you want to encourage employees to be more engaged in their learning and development as well as current industry affairs, hidden overwork can create a toxic environment where employees are constantly competing with one another to get ahead, often putting themselves at risk of burnout in the process.

So, what are the impacts of hidden overwork, and how can you better support the employees who are constantly giving you their all?

How is Hidden Overwork Impacting Life Science Employees?

Employees who invest in their learning and development outside of work can expand their skill set beyond what is required of them in their role. Suppose you have an internal mobility strategy in place. In that case, these employees may have more opportunities to explore different career paths within your organisation and support their colleagues with tasks/projects they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. If you give your employees the opportunity to implement what they’ve learnt outside of work into their job, and support them with any new aspirations, they’ll be more likely to stay with you and be engaged in their work.

Immersing themselves in the life science industry outside of work can give employees more context about their role, how they fit into the company, and how the company operates within the industry alongside its competitors. They can use this extra knowledge to influence upcoming company projects and long-term goals, helping to position themselves and your organisation as experts/thought leaders.

By going above and beyond outside of work to expand their skillset and immerse themselves in the industry, employees may build up more confidence at work, grow their network with industry influencers, understand competitor activity and more, with all of these being extremely beneficial to you as an employer. If your employees are so dedicated to their work that they’re willing to invest their personal time into their careers and your organisation’s growth, then these are great people to have as brand ambassadors for your business.

However, too much hidden overwork can make it harder for your employees to fully switch off and reset, with the boundaries between work and life becoming increasingly blurred. Being ‘Always on’ can be damaging in the long term, and can actually lead to your employees becoming unproductive, demotivated, and cynical. These feelings can also be created once going above and beyond outside of work becomes an expectation and a burden, with employees starting to feel they are being constantly monitored, even outside their working hours.

What Can Life Science Employers Do to Help?

According to The State of Workplace Burnout Report 2023:

  • Employees who are not burnt out feel 49% more engaged in their work
  • 39% of employees who aren’t burnt out reported being more productive at work
  • 43% of employees who aren’t burnt out reported producing a higher quality of work

Letting work constantly seep into your employees’ personal lives isn’t going to help you achieve your goals in the long term. The key thing you can do to help is to encourage them to stay engaged with their learning and development and company/industry affairs, whilst also helping them to set boundaries. Here are 8 things you can do to help:

  • Be clear about what employees need to do in order to gain a pay increase or promotion, focusing on performance and results rather than overwork
  • Don’t constantly reach out to employees outside of work, e.g., sending non-urgent WhatsApp messages to your team in the evenings/on weekends
  • Be clear about what you expect from employees, e.g., if you do expect them to attend industry events outside of work as part of their role, state this in your job descriptions, and be as clear as you can about frequency etc.
  • Look out for people who are ‘always on’ and make sure they’re being supported in their role and aren’t at risk of burnout
  • Make sure that when employees take annual leave, they are truly out of office and not still in and out of their inbox
  • Recognise employees who go above and beyond, but also reward those who are producing excellent work during their set hours, looking at results produced as well as time invested
  • Give employees autonomy over their learning and development, allowing them to identify areas they’d like to improve in and giving them the time to do so
  • Give employees time for learning and development and keeping up with the industry, whether you do this by giving them one day per month to attend an event of their choice, or an hour every week for them to attend a webinar, listen to a podcast or read up on the results of a new study

Remember That Everyone is Different

Remember that each employee is different. Not everyone is able to constantly go above and beyond outside of work, nor should they be expected to. Give your staff the time to learn and engage with industry developments, without letting their professional lives become too all-consuming.

Similarly, don’t assume that every worker consistently putting in lots of extra work is doing it out of necessity rather than enjoyment. Some people genuinely live and breathe their work, and enjoy learning and networking in their own time. As long as you’re there to help set boundaries if needed, you’ll be able to keep these employees happy too.