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Overtime and health among salaried employees

As of the writing of this article, there has been little research on overtime (Thomas, 1992), even though overtime has been associated with back injuries (Daltroy, Larson, Wright, Malspeis, Fossel, Ryan, Zwerling & Liang, 1991), higher blood pressure (Andriushchenko, Liubenzon & Liakhov, 1991), a greater rate of industrial accidents (Leigh, 1986; Thomas, 1992), and less time dedicated to health promotion activities (Alexy, 1991). People who work with moderately toxic substances may have health problems due to increased exposure (Wang, Chang, Kao, Huang, Lin & Yeh, 1986).

Baird and Beccia (1980) operationalized organizational overtime as “a count of the actual hours of overtime paid by the offices” (p. 560). Wilk and Redmon (1990) defined overtime as a cost, including both pay for hours worked over a weekly limit and money spent on temporary help. Overtime is defined here as “hours worked beyond the normal schedule” (Baird & Beccia, 1980, p. 557). Both of the latter definitions allow application of the term “overtime” to exempt (salaried) employees, who generally do not receive extra compensation for extra hours.

There has been little theoretical progress on the reasons why overtime may lead to health problems. Increased exposure to a moderately toxic environment or moderately hazardous activity may lead to increased risk (following Wang et al., 1986). This may include increased exposure to a stressful environment. If this is the case, then longer working days, rather than overtime itself, may be the actual cause of risk.

Overtime itself may also cause some stress or fatigue, especially if it causes a time conflict between the job and other activities. Finally, it is possible that overtime causes people to devote less time to health promotion activities (Alexy, 1991), leading to health problems.

Because overtime has been associated with medical problems, higher levels of overtime may be expected to lead to higher use of medical benefits.

There has also been little research on why people actually work overtime. Jevons (1965) applied economic utility to working overtime, writing that “as labour is prolonged the effort becomes as a general rule more and more painful.” (p. 171) While work may be pleasurable at first, the pleasure diminishes with time, and the pain grows; thus, according to Jevons, people would stop working when “the pain of work exceeds the desire for possession” (p. 174). This may also be applied to exempt positions, if one assumes that work is intrinsically rewarding, or that people may see overtime as essential to keeping their job or getting promotions.

Fottler and Schaller (1975) studied 1,400 hourly workers, and found that younger workers, men, and married workers under 30 accepted more overtime. They studied frequency of overtime, rather than total hours, and noted that some workers may have been offered overtime more often than other workers. They saw their findings as supporting Jevons’ theory.

Shepherd and Walker (1958) also found some support for Jevons’ theory. Overtime was correlated with family responsibilities only among workers with lower wages. They suggested that people with low salaries and high responsibilities worked more to make up for wages lost due to family-related absences, and because they needed more money for their families. Higher-wage workers, they wrote, may not have needed the extra income as much.

If exempt workers work overtime hours in the hopes of receiving raises or promotions, or out of fear of losing their jobs, one might expect overtime hours to be higher among those at lower salaries or with less seniority, who would need the extra income more. On the other hand, if exempt workers find their jobs to be intrinsically rewarding, one might expect to find no significant relationships. If one assumed that those at higher grade levels (upper management) had more intrinsically rewarding jobs, then one might even find that overtime hours were higher among those with more seniority and higher salaries.

The reasons why people accept overtime are not clear. Past theory and research has used economic theory. However, other reasons, such as seasonal needs, temporary understaffing, fear of losing one’s job, and the desire to impress others with one’s dedication may also apply. This study endeavored to see why people accept overtime.

Sample and procedure

The sample consisted of about 200 full-time, non-union college staff workers; 96 surveys were returned, for a response rate of 48%. Almost all had a college degree; 68 (71%) had no children; and about half were women.  The mean age was 38, and the mean salary was about $33,000.

A survey was sent to each staff person at their office. The survey included cover letters from the consultant and the chair of a staff committee. The surveys were sent with a pre-stamped envelope, addressed to the consultant’s home.


Overtime. Overtime was measured by a single three-part item: “How often do you work overtime? ___ (hours per day)? ___ (days per week)? ___ (weekends per month)?” Because the correlations between overtime items were moderate (see Table 1), it was concluded that the items each tap a different aspect of overtime and should be considered separately.

Table 1: Correlations of overtime measures





Hours / Day




Days / Week




Grade level














– .07


* p ≤ .05     ** p ≤ .01

Medical problems. The existence of medical problems was based on a list of medical benefits respondents had or had not recently used: vision care, sick leave, and disability leave. These were analyzed separately and as a composite measure of whether people had used any benefits. Vision care was included because working long hours with computer equipment may lead to damage to the eye’s focusing mechanism (Researchers, 1987; Study, 1988).

Reasons for working overtime. A list of possible reasons for working overtime were assembled by a group including the consultant and members of the professional staff. This list was not conclusive, and an “other” category was provided (but used only by two people).

Other variables. Demographics, including age, grade level, salary, and years worked at the college were asked directly.


One quarter of the respondents reported working no overtime hours per day; over one half worked one hour per day or more. 67% worked overtime two or more days per week. Over half of the respondents (52%) reported working at least one weekend per month.

Medical benefits. The sample was divided into thirds, based on overtime worked (using each of the measures); the benefits usage of the top third was compared to that of the bottom third. No significant differences were found using chi-square tests. The sample was then divided into halves, based on overtime worked. The top half did not use medical benefits more than the bottom half, again.  Similar results were obtained when the sample was divided into those who had and who had not worked overtime.

Seniority. All three measures of overtime werepositively correlated with grade level, although only days and hours were related to salary (see Table 1). No measure of overtime was related to age or length of time at the college.

Reasons for working overtime. This item was completed by only 78 people (81%), 20 of whom cited multiple reasons. The most common reason cited was a heavy workload (see below), often apparently caused by institutional inefficiency. The only reasons for working overtime which were not related to the amount of work at hand were avoiding interruptions and supervisor requests.

Heavy workload         55 cases
Understaffing         21 cases
Want to avoid interruptions         17 cases
Requested by supervisor         2 cases
Other         4 cases
Missing/no response         18 cases


Medical benefits

No relationship between use of medical benefits and overtime was found. There are a number of explanations for this. First, the measure of medical problems may not have been strong enough. The use of medical benefits is an indirect measure, and frequency of use was not measured. The sample may have been too small to show some outcomes as significant.

Medical problems due to overtime may not arise unless much more time is involved, or the work is of a different nature — more physically demanding or stressful, perhaps. The lack of vision problems may be due to the low number of subjects who use computers on a regular basis, or the recency of the introduction of computers here.


Each measure of overtime was positively correlated with grade level, providing some support for the idea that intrinsic motivation may cause overtime, if one assumes that jobs at higher grade levels are more intrinsically motivating. The organization may also demand more work of people in higher grade levels.

The correlation of overtime with age and salary were also checked, in case the relationship between overtime and grade level was simply a by-product of age or salary. This does not appear to be the case; there was no significant correlation between overtime and age, and the relationship between overtime and salary was weaker than that of overtime and grade level.

These findings suggest that the research on overtime among hourly employees may not be applicable to exempt employees. This may not be simply because they are exempt rather than hourly, but because their salaries are high enough that they need not work extra hours merely for economic reasons (following Shepherd & Walker, 1958). The relationship between overtime and perceived financial rewards may also be weak, though this may be an organizational artifact (there is some evidence that promotions and raises are not seen as being related to performance in this organization).

It should be noted that, in this organization, an employee may receive “comp time” (compensatory time off for overtime worked), depending on their supervisor and the circumstances. Those working in some departments were allowed to work flexible hours (such as 11 am to 7 pm). These policies were not official and varied with the supervisor, possibly weakening the results.

Reasons for working overtime

Most people said they worked extra hours because of the workload or understaffing (related reasons). Others wanted to avoid interruptions in their work by working when few others were present. Finally, a few people put in extra hours when requested by their supervisor, because of seasonal demands, or for other reasons. In other organizations, seasonal overtime may be much more prevalent.

The group which assembled the choices for this item may not have been representative of the staff in general. If there are common reasons for working overtime which are not on the list, they might be under-represented because of the ease with which people can check off those reasons which were listed. An open-ended question would be more suitable for future research.

Possibilities for future research

More theory and research on overtime is needed, for both exempt and for non-exempt employees. At this time, the distinction between long hours and overtime has not been examined; for example, are the health problems associated with overtime in the past due to overtime itself, or simply to longer hours? Is there a difference between a standard 40 hour work week and a 35 hour work week with 5 hours of overtime — in other words, is there an essential psychological component of overtime which may be distinguished with the effects of working long hours? If there is no practical difference, then the concept of overtime is unnecessary.

The findings suggest that there may be differences in the effects of overtime in terms of hours per day, days per week, and weekends per month. The reasons why these types of overtime should have different effects may be explored. One may suggest, for example, that weekend work may have more of a psychological effect, partly by removing one weekend day from rest, and partly because it may accentuate the knowledge that one is putting in “extra” time. Working alone, when most others have left the organization, may have stronger effects than working an extra hour or two when the office is still relatively crowded with people. Constant overtime, in terms of an hour or two every day, may become a routine, and be accepted in time as part of the normal work week, whereas a few hours of overtime on odd days may be experienced as more unusual, and have a stronger effect.

The moderating effects of stress and anxiety on the relationship between overtime and health problems may be examined more closely in the future. The differentiation of different types of overtime may help in finding exactly what aspect of overtime may cause these problems. A large-scale study of a single organization may help, especially if both hourly and exempt workers could be studied; with a large enough sample, especially if different parts of the organization had different working hours, a number of questions could be answered. In the current sample, for example, the effects of having children could not be studied, because only 16 people reported having children (and several of these people had children over 18).


In the past, overtime has been related to health problems; this study was not able to find any significant relationship, but this may have been due to the small sample size and imprecise indicators of medical problems. More theory is needed to explain why overtime may lead to medical problems; for example, whether overtime leads to stress and anxiety, or simply greater exposure to toxins; and whether overtime has any psychological impact which differentiates the effects of overtime from those of long working weeks.

This study, in a limited fashion, tried to find out why exempt employees worked overtime. Overtime appeared to increase with grade level, possibly indicating that greater responsibility or intrinsic motivation led to overtime, and that an economic relationship was not probable.

The primary reason for putting in overtime was to complete work which could not be finished in the ordinary work week. This may not be the case in other organizations or among hourly employees.

Although there has been little theory and research on overtime in the past, before further work is done in this area, it may be essential to see whether there are meaningful differences between overtime and the length of the work week, and which measure of overtime is most important. It may even be possible to minimize some of the impact of overtime by spreading it out evenly over the week, making it seem like a long work week.


Alexy, B. B. (1991). Factors associated with participation or non participation in a workplace wellness center. Research in Nursing and Health, 14, 33-40.

Baird, L. S., and Beccia, P.J. (1980). The potential misuse of overtime. Personnel Psychology, 33, 557-565.

Daltroy, L. H., Larson, M.G., Wright, E.A., Malspeis, S., Fossel, A.H., Ryan, J., Zwerling, C., and Liang, M.H. (1992). A case-control study of risk factors for industrial low back injury: implications for primary and secondary prevention programs. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 20, 505-515.

Fottler, M. D., and Schaller, F.W. (1975). Overtime acceptance among blue-collar workers. Industrial Relations, 14, 327-336.

Jevons, W.S. (1965). The theory of political economy: Fifth edition. New York: A.M. Kelly.

Leigh, J. P. (1986). Individual and job characteristics as predictors of industrial accidents. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 18, 209-216.

Shepherd, R. D., and Walker, J. (1958). Absence from work in relation to wage level and family responsibility. British Journal of Industrial Medicine, 15, 52-61.

Thomas, H. R. (1992). Effects of scheduled overtime on labor productivity. Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, 118, 60-76.

Wang, J. D.;. C., Y.C.; Kao, K.P.; Huang, C.C.; Lin, C.C.; Yeh, W.Y. (1986). An outbreak of N-hexane induced polyneuropathy among press proofing workers in Taipei. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 10, 111-118.

Wilk, L. A., and Redmon, W.K. (1990). A daily-adjusted goal-setting and feedback procedure for improving productivity in a university admissions department. Special issue: promoting excellence through performance management. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 11, 55-75.

This article copyright © 1996, David Zatz. Please do not reprint without written permission.


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