Beth, a Toronto-based international marketing manager, is travelling for pleasure in Europe – but she still doesn’t feel disconnected from work. That’s because even when she’s not explicitly working, she’s still putting in hours off the clock, doing things like checking in on her team via WhatsApp and listening to “a ton” of work-related podcasts.
“I’m about to get on a train and go to my Italian office to say hi, on my holiday,” she says. “Do I have a problem?”
Although workdays have been getting longer for millions of knowledge workers – and in many cases, more hours have become standard – plenty of work still happens outside the normal workday, no matter its length. Think of those not-quite-work tasks that seep into personal time: reading job-related articles that pop up on your social media feeds at the weekend, or listening to industry podcasts on a run.
Workers have been doing these off-shift tasks for a long time. But since the pandemic overhauled the way people work, the lines between professional and personal have become increasingly fuzzy, making it even easier for these behaviours to occur. These hidden, even quiet, overwork moments may not strictly feel like work, but they still are. And as this extra effort is morphing into a tacit expectation, it’s becoming harder for workers to shake off – subsequently, making it almost impossible to ever turn off.
Hidden overwork is different to working long hours in the office or on the clock at home – instead, it’s the time an employee puts into tasks on top of their brief. There are plenty of reasons people take on this extra work: to be up to speed in meetings; appear ‘across issues’ when asked about industry developments; or seem sharp in an environment in which a worker is still trying to establish themselves.
There are myriad ways a person’s day job can slip into their non-working hours: think a worker chatting to someone from their industry at their child’s birthday party, and suddenly slipping into networking mode. Or perhaps an employee hears their boss mention a book in a meeting, so they download and listen to it on evening walks for a week, stopping occasionally to jot down some notes.
Anyone can be susceptible to hidden overwork – from IT workers, a large percentage of whom spend their free time upskilling, to women who often rely on overpreparation to fight imposter syndrome at work.
For many employees, it’s easy to fall into these hidden overwork patterns. For one, some of these tasks have simply become baked into office-job culture. As going above and beyond has increasingly become a tacit employer expectation for workers who want to advance, under-the-radar tasks like this seamlessly slip into some workers’ job descriptions – whether employees realise it or not.
“There does seem to be a gap between what employees versus employers feel is the bare minimum required at work,” says Alexia Cambon, director of research at workplace-consultancy Gartner’s HR practice. While some employees may see their official job requirements as the maximum they should be doing, many employers view that as the bare minimum, she says, so they’ll only see workers as high performers if they make additional contributions.
So, although a large portion of these tasks are invisible to bosses, many employees feel compelled to perform them anyway, since they can potentially help the worker perform better and stand out. Allison Weinhaas, associate professor in the communications department at Rider University, US, says marginalised workers may especially jump to do this work to give them an “opportunity to shine”.
This extra effort isn’t all bad. In some cases, says Cambon, “when you’re choosing to do these quiet overwork tasks because you are passionate about your work – or think you can gain something from it – they aren’t necessarily a negative addition to your life”.
It all depends on the context, she adds: “It’s really important to distinguish between two types of work – the work that gives you energy and the work that takes energy away from you.”
Like Cambon, Christina Maslach, professor of psychology emerita at University of California, Berkeley, also thinks these kinds of tasks can have a positive impact – that is, if workers ensure they’re getting something back from this extra work, instead of just doing them for the sake of it.
“The question is, ‘how is this actually making a difference?’,” says Maslach. For instance, she says, do you feel more prepared? Are you becoming more engaged with your work? Was all your meeting prep effective, since you impressed your boss, and now you’re up for a promotion? Then, she believes, it may be worth it – in moderation.
Robert, a trainee solicitor in London, is one worker who says he’s reaped the benefits of these outside-work tasks. “When I first started my job, I would read a work-related blog outside of work hours, because I wanted to be able to talk to people at the office about work-related stuff,” he says. Robert says this kind of overwork helped him connect with the higher-ups, and made him feel more confident as he started a new career track.
However, for many, this overwork no longer feels like a choice – and that’s when things go bad. This can especially be the case, says Cambon, when these off-hours tasks become another form of presenteeism – for instance, an employee reading a competitor’s website and sharing links in a messaging channel at night, just so they can signal to their boss they’re always on. “We're seeing… more employees who feel monitored by their organisations, and then feel like they have to put in extra hours,” she says.
As such, this hidden overwork can do a lot of potential damage if it becomes an unspoken requirement. “If there’s more expectation and burden associated with it, that’s where people are going to have negative consequences,” says Nancy Rothbard, management professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, US. “That’s where it becomes tough on them.”
Although the experts say it’s OK if the work side of the scale is slightly heavier for a bit of time, when that imbalance grows too big or lasts too long, people can find their mental health and wellness in trouble. “You're not getting to use parts of your life for other things that mean something to you, because it all has to keep going into the workplace jar,” says Maslach. “If it becomes a more chronic kind of lifestyle, it can lead to this more negative, full-blown burnout.”
Of course, to do well in some industries, employees have to keep their heads in the game behind the scenes. But for many workers, that’s not necessarily the case – yet these tasks have just found their way into everyday work. Is it possible to dislodge them as normalised, now that they’re all but built into the way many people work?
It’s unclear, at least right now.
In some cases, it may be especially difficult, especially for those who work for the employers who expect this extra effort. Cambon says employers may already be defining strong performers as those “engaging at all hours”. If that trend continues to expand, then some workers – or at least those who want to progress – may have no choice but to let work seep into their home lives.
Additionally, the increasing blurring of work-life boundaries in the pandemic era may make it harder to separate one’s professional life from the personal – and workers may not even realise these lives have braided together so much. “The remote-work phenomenon has made it more difficult for people to know when to stop,” says Rothbard. And it’s not clear yet whether people will be able to draw better boundaries as they settle into new hybrid work models, or if employees’ work and life worlds are now irrevocably merged.
If hidden overwork turns out to be unavoidable, experts say the best thing workers can do is to make sure they are getting something out of it, be it inspiration for a project or a salary bump. Because otherwise, even if the extra contributions are only take a little time, the ‘always on’ mentality can be damaging in the long-term.
Beth is still struggling against her urge to hidden overwork, as she hasn’t had any opportunities for promotion or progression. But it’s not easy to shake off the behaviour, she says – it still feels necessary to go above and beyond. “I wish I could quiet quit instead,” she says, “but I just don't think it's in me.”