Overtime, anytime: how to keep working hours under control and beat burnout

Working on the weekend. Checking emails first thing in the morning. These are all increasingly common behaviours for employees who want to impress, but it’s not necessarily healthy or productive. How can leaders foster a better culture?


What time did you check your email this morning? Did you work any nights last week? Over the weekend?

The culture of working all the time has been on my mind after reading this international survey from RescueTime. It found 92% of people now regularly work on evenings or weekends, 34% check their email as soon as they wake up and over half (51%) said the time they’ve spent on communication has increased in the past three to five years.

The results are probably not surprising to you – we all know about lines blurring between work and life – but they are definitely not ideal. And with COVID-19 forcing nearly half of all Australians to work from home, the Centre for Future Work has warned some employers may take advantage of workers wanting to ‘prove themselves’ and intensify workloads even further. 

This makes no sense to me. Overworking isn’t productive in the long run; research has shown long hours negatively impacts employee productivity, performance, health and motivation. As leaders, it falls on our shoulders to avoid a ‘work ‘til you drop’ culture, taking active steps to avoid burnout symptoms and ensure teams are happy and healthy.

An easy trap to fall into

It’s easier said than done, particularly as the problem may be unintentional. I have been there, done that: accidentally over-estimating the capacity of our team in the early days of running Leading Edge Life Skills.

Our team of horses are mainly our retired performance horses and because they were used to a lot of physical exercise, I thought it would be fine switching to the less physically demanding work at Leading Edge. I was wrong. After a while I realised this entirely different style of work was placing a different burden on the horses and it was greater than I anticipated.

So, I had to re-think our schedule and find different ways to ensure the team stayed happy and healthy. Luckily, the experience taught me a few key skills to avoid it happening again!

  • Know your team

It is important to remember that each team member responds in their own way to changes to their workload.

With my team, it is obvious when some of our “louder” horses like Bart have had enough – because he fidgets, swishes his tail and stamps his feet.

But others, like Vinnie, show far more subtle signs such as shutting their eyes occasionally or pausing, which can be almost impossible to interpret for those who don’t know them well.

As leaders, it is important to pay attention to our subtle communicators, not just the “squeaky wheels”.

  • There are different ways over-exertion manifests

One crucial observation I made about my horses is the way they react to being tired can vary depending on the underlying issue. When they’re physically tired, like us, they will doze off (unlike us, they can do so standing up!). Less obvious is when they are feeling mentally stretched as the outward signs may look the same – the way some horses switches off from uncomfortable situations is to pause and close their eyes.  

Figures from SafeWork show 92% of all serious mental health condition workers compensation claims are attributed to mental stress, highlighting the importance of ensuring we keep an eye on both physical tiredness and mental exhaustion.

  • Not all workloads are created equal

A particularly good example of this came from my horse Opal, who you may have heard me mention before. When I first started running my leadership programs, she was still competing in a few local show jumping events. While I was giving her plenty of rest days, it eventually clicked that she was tired because she was being asked to do two very different jobs.

While everyone in your team may seem to have roughly the same workload, not everyone will respond to the same workload in the same way. Perhaps they have too many tasks with not enough synergy, or alternatively not enough variety?

  • Lead by example

I once worked for a large software company where I had a very understanding manager. However, he used to send emails at 4am. Because he was so reasonable in all other areas, it made his team feel like we weren’t doing enough. A great example of how an otherwise good leader was inadvertently modelling unhealthy working practices for his team.

Remember, great leaders lead by example and take responsibility for the welfare of their people.

What steps do you take to prevent employee burnout? Model a healthy attitude to overtime? What mistakes have you learnt from in the past? Let me know in the comments. And for more information on Leading Edge Life Skills email info@leadingedgelifeskills.com.au