Joseph Barnum* couldn’t believe it. After working 24 years as a service technician for a communications company in Maryland, he was fired for having to pick up his kids after school.
A single parent, Barnum had told his supervisors that he needed to retrieve his two small children from school every day by 6 p.m. At first, he says, his supervisors were willing to work with him. “But then they came up with the mandatory overtime policy,” Barnum recalls. “And that’s when things went haywire.”
In 1995, the company cut back its workforce by 15 percent and demanded that its employees be available on short notice to work up to 10 to 15 hours of overtime a week. To make up the difference, Barnum volunteered for overtime assignments on weekends — working seven days a week on many occasions — but managers refused to compromise.
Several warnings and suspensions later, Barnum was fired in March 1997. After a successful arbitration, the company was ordered in July 1998 to pay him back wages and offer him his previous job or one with the same pay that did not require overtime. Barnum returned to the job but feels a lingering bitterness over the ordeal.
“Because of the mental anguish he went through, I’m not sure Joe feels it was a true victory,” says an arbitrator on Barnum’s case. “He’s demoralized that a company he has given so much loyalty and service to would terminate him when there were a lot of reasonable alternatives to meet its needs.”
A significant public health concern
Mandatory overtime has become a daily reality for millions of American workers. Many employees welcome the opportunity to work overtime for the added wages. But for others, the expanded workweek has led to stress, exhaustion, and stress-related health problems and injuries.
Some recent studies show a correlation between the harmful effects of working long shifts, while others do not. One review of 14 studies of housestaff physicians found that only half the studies confirmed adverse effects from working prolonged shifts, while most showed no significant effects. In another study of 2,617 nurses, researchers found that extended work schedules “significantly related” to musculoskeletal injuries like low back pain. Most certainly job stress — which many employees say is exacerbated by mandatory overtime — can be hazardous to your health.
Job-related stress causes more than anxiety or discomfort: It increases the risk of muscle and skeletal disorders, heart disease, depression, and burnout, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). What’s more, according to the American Institute of Stress, one million US workers miss work each day because of stress-related complaints.
“The US workplace has changed dramatically in the past decade and continues to do so,” said NIOSH director Linda Rosenstock, MD, MPH, in 1999. “With this transformation has come unprecedented demands on businesses and workers, and the emergence of work stress as a significant occupational and public health concern.”
Mandatory overtime is an increasingly contentious issue in contract negotiations, particularly in telecommunications, nursing, transportation, steel, mining, and the auto industry. Employers say forced overtime is necessary to compete in an increasingly elastic economy, especially if they’re forced to lay off employees during a slump. But workers from firefighters to bakery employees have challenged their employers’ mandatory overtime policies, contending that companies should hire and train new employees rather than continually require employees to work overtime.
Nurses have been particularly hard hit by mandatory overtime policies in hospitals and other health care settings. After cutbacks and restructuring in response to managed care, nurses are routinely asked to work 12 to 16 hours a day, often with no advance warning, says Patricia Franklin, head of the workplace advocacy program for the American Nurses Association.
“It’s one of the most central issues facing nurses,” Franklin says. “If we can’t provide a safe and healthy work environment, we are not only jeopardizing the future of nursing but the safety and well-being of all patients.” Injuries and accidents are more likely to occur if nurses are stressed, overworked, and fatigued, she says.
In recent years, several states have passed legislation limiting mandatory overtime for nurses except in emergencies, and as of February 2009, 15 states have at least some restrictions. Unfortunately, many other state bills addressing the issue have not been passed. So far, a federal law remains elusive: the Safe Nursing and Patient Care Act of 2007 (HR 2122) was referred to the House Subcommittee on Health in May 2007, but died with the close of the 110th Congress. Similar bills died on Capitol Hill in 2001, 2003, and 2005.
NIOSH senior scientist and psychologist Roger Rosa, PhD, says stress levels surge when employees are unable to predict or regulate their work schedule. “In general, stress issues go up when control goes down. And control over your working hours is fundamental to how you organize not only your work life, but the rest of your life.”
Recent research confirms that job stress related to overwork can translate into health problems and injuries, says Rosa. A Canadian study of long work hours found increased depression in workers, including unhealthy weight gain in men and drinking in women. Japanese workers, who are working longer and longer hours, have seen an increase in cardiovascular problems over the last five years. And a German study found that workers experienced a significant rise in accidents and traumatic incidents after nine to 10 hours on a shift.
Illness and accidents linked to mandatory overtime
Here in the United States, one such accident recently struck a Maine lineman who worked back-to-back shifts all weekend with only a few hours sleep. Exhausted, the veteran worker was killed when he forgot to put on his insulating gloves before reaching for a 7,200-volt cable.
“We need to treat much more seriously mandatory overtime and the underlying stress it causes in people’s family and work lives,” says Lonnie Golden, associate professor of economics at Pennsylvania State University, Abington campus.
A study by Northwestern National Life found that seven out of 10 employees reporting job stress say they experience frequent health ailments, says Golden, who is co-editor of Working Time: International Trends, Theory and Practice. The insurance company found that frequent mandatory overtime was one of the leading five factors causing increased stress.
In addition, other studies have found that people who are sleep-deprived as a result of overwork have an increased risk of injuries. For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy drivers are responsible for 100,000 crashes, 40,000 injuries, and 1,500 vehicular deaths each year.
The issue of mandatory overtime is even more important in a tight economy. While economists say there are no hard statistics on employers’ use of mandatory overtime, they agree that its use is becoming more widespread. “As more and more workers are being asked to work overtime, [you see] multiple tensions, such as balancing work and family and well-being issues,” says John Frasier, who enforces overtime laws for the U.S. Department of Labor.
Difficult to meet family responsibilities
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American workers averaged 15 percent more work hours in 2005 than their European Union counterparts. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s “State of Working America 2006-7,” in 2004 the typical dual-income family worked about 2.5 weeks a year longer than a similar family in 1995.
Data from multiple surveys suggest that up to one-third of the US workforce experiences high levels of stress at work, reports NIOSH. Health-care costs increased nearly 50 percent for these workers, and almost 200 percent for those experiencing both high levels of stress and depression.
NIOSH’s Rosa notes that many variables affect the degree of stress caused by mandatory overtime. They include the frequency of overtime hours, outside emotional support, day or night hours (night is worse), job tasks, and workload. “If an employee is doing a lot of overtime work, the odds are the workload is also high and they’re also under time pressure, which increases the effects of stress,” he says.
The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and state laws do not limit overtime hours or prohibit employers from requiring overtime. They do require that employees be paid time and half for all hours worked over 40 in a single workweek. (Managerial positions are not covered, however.) While legislators in several states are currently considering a cap on overtime hours, in May 2000, Maine became the first state in the country to limit the number of hours an employee can be required to work.
A spokesman for one telecommunications giant says the company tries to strike a balance between the need to provide services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and employees’ personal lives. “We have to be prepared to cope with unanticipated events such as heavy snowstorms that knock down our phone lines or spikes in orders for our services,” he says. “On the other hand, we’re sensitive that our employees have lives outside of the company and need to spend time with friends and family. Basically our policy is to ask for volunteers, and if there aren’t enough, we use required overtime. Obviously it’s in our best interests to look at issues of stress and resolve them, as it leads to more productive employees.”
Employees understand that their managers need them to be somewhat flexible, but say that more needs to be done. “I fully recognize that the company can’t staff for the busiest day of the year and have people waiting around the rest of the time,” says one customer service representative. “But they don’t staff adequately. All we’re asking is to have some control over our lives.”
If you believe that the amount of overtime you’re working is excessive, here are a few things you can do:
- Try as best you can to plan ahead and anticipate overtime. Schedule your rest and home life, and educate your family about your job pressures.
- Coordinate with your coworkers to determine who’s least unwilling to work overtime, who can volunteer, and so on.
- “Throw yourself on the mercy of your boss,” says one expert only half in jest. If you have any leverage with your boss, tell him or her your personal situation and try to negotiate overtime hours.
- Talk to your colleagues and then request an opportunity to discuss the mandatory overtime policy and its impact with the appropriate supervisor or company executive. You or your union representatives, if you’re in a union, may be able to work out something that’s satisfactory to both sides.
* Joseph Barnum is a pseudomyn.
National Institutes of Health National Center on Sleep Disorders http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/sleep/index.htm
This federal agency conducts research on sleep and sleep problems.
Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) http://www.osha.gov
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) http://www.cdc.gov/niosh
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GovTrack.us. HR 2122: Safe Nursing and Patient Care Act of 2007. http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h110-2122
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