You might have seen the headlines recently: working long hours isn’t good for our health. Maybe you read the headlines and chose to blissfully ignore them, excusing yourself as the exception to the rule. Whether we work overtime regularly, or once in a blue moon, it’s important to know the impact it might be having on our health. And, if you are an employer, it’s your obligation to protect the health of your people by proactively managing their work hours.

In this article, we welcome comments from experienced employment lawyer Caro Rieger from Black Door Law. In the pop-out box below, she shares her insights into the duties and obligations of employers when it comes to avoiding overwork.

Burnout continues to be a hot topic of workplace mental health and, while working long hours is not a prerequisite to burnout, overwork can certainly contribute to the energy depletion component that is so central to how it manifests. 

Recent research by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that people around the world who work long hours (defined as at least 55 hours per week) are at heightened risk of heart disease and stroke compared to those who work standard hours (35-40 hours per week). Nearly one in 10 adults globally are estimated to be working these long hours, contributing to approximately three quarters of a million deaths annually (according to data collected in 2016).

While many New Zealanders might not count themselves among these statistics, Kiwis generally do work longer hours, on average, compared to other OECD countries. Additionally, WHO/ILO data found that the proportion of stroke-related deaths (3.4%) and heart disease-related deaths (2.4%) in 2016, due to long working hours in New Zealand, was higher than in other Western countries including Australia, UK, Canada and the USA. 

There are at least two possible reasons why overworking might lead to such adverse health outcomes. First, the more we work, the more likely it is that our physiological stress response is activated, triggering harmful changes throughout our bodies when this stress is ongoing (not least including heightened blood pressure and the formation of fat deposits in our arteries). 

Second, people who work longer hours are more likely to adopt unhealthy behavioural responses to this heightened stress – including substance use, bad eating habits, lack of exercise, disrupted sleep – all of which are also risk factors for illness and disease.

Our team has written extensively about steps we can take to mitigate these risks from a wellbeing perspective – including reducing burnout risk, providing proactive organisational support, creating a culture of wellbeing at work, and building rest and recovery into our everyday rhythms. 

For more ideas on supporting team health and wellbeing, feel free to explore our article archives or get in touch with us.

What are my legal obligations as an employer to protect against overworking?

Kate Milburn

Caro Rieger
Employment lawyer,
Black Door Law

Overwork that leads to burnout or heightened stress levels in a workplace could be an indicator an employer is not meeting their obligations. Although working above and beyond contracted hours is a reality for some, this practice can create legal risks for employers who enable employees to work increased hours without putting supports in place. 

A number of legal obligations come into play when it comes to increased work hours. Employers have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 to ensure (so far as is reasonably practicable) the health and safety of their workers. This includes the obligation to protect against physical harm (including fatigue) as well as psychological harm. Employers’ health and safety obligations extend to employees who work from home. 

With employees being more available due to technology and the increase of employees working remotely, there is a greater blurring of the lines between work and home. While technology and working from home offers flexibility, when not appropriately managed, it can lead to overwork and increased stress levels. I recently read a quote that said: “We are no longer working from home, but sleeping where we work.” Employers should be mindful of this and put plans in place to safeguard the health and safety of their employees.

In addition to their Health and Safety obligations, employers must also provide a range of minimum working conditions, as dictated by various pieces of legislation.  Employers’ obligations include, for example: 

  • ensuring staff are paid at least the minimum wage for every hour worked;
  • offering reasonable consideration for requiring an employee to be available to work additional hours/overtime; and
  • allowing adequate rest and meal breaks to be taken. 

Where employees are salaried and are earning close to minimum wage for their contracted hours (if you divide the weekly or fortnightly salary by the number of hours worked), they can very quickly start earning less than minimum wage if working beyond those hours.  

A breach of any of these obligations can lead to employers being required to pay penalties, fines or having to retrospectively pay staff in line with their minimum entitlements (or all three!).  To mitigate the risk of breaching minimum entitlements, employers should be taking the time to design roles appropriately, sharing responsibility across staff members and consistently monitoring working hours and employee wellbeing. Some practical things employers can do in this regard are:

  1. When employees are required to fill in timesheets, review any increase in hours. 
  2. Be conscious of employees earning close to minimum wage and ensure that any work over and above contracted hours results in a “top-up” to their salary to comply with minimum wage obligations. 
  3. Use technology to provide reports on who is accessing the server or sending emails outside of work hours and monitor if there are any trends with employees regularly working long hours.
  4. Use the above information to put a plan in place.

*Disclaimer: This information is intended as general legal information and does not constitute legal advice.  If you have a specific issue and wish to discuss it, get in contact with us at [email protected]