Give ’em a break

It may be tempting for some employers to get the most out of workers, but too much work can lead to diminishing returns

Give ’em a break

By Jeffrey R. Smith

A well-rested worker is a more productive worker. A well-rested worker is also more likely to be a happier, healthier and engaged worker. Seems to make sense, no? But many employers don’t seem to understand that and the push towards the bottom line may end up just pushing them and their workers to the bottom.

In certain circumstances, there’s no way to really avoid people working overtime. Sometime the job demands it, things need to get done, or a company is short-staffed. In the short-term, overtime may be necessary or a certain amount is needed each week. But there are legal limits to how many hours per week employees can work, and there’s a good reason for those limits and the premium employers must pay for employees to work beyond those hours.

Too much work can be detrimental to employee health and work-life balance. And overworking employees doesn’t make much sense when the more they work, the quality of work suffers.

And it’s not only the quality of work that can take a nosedive from overworked employees. Overtired employees aren’t going to have the same cognitive abilities as well-rested ones, which can lead to serious safety issues in safety-sensitive workplaces. Fatigue can be just as much of a contributor to impairment as drugs or alcohol and lead to workplace accidents and injuries.

For example, trucking and transit companies where employees are driving vehicles for long periods of time usually have specific time limits on how long drivers can drive without taking breaks and rest periods. There are legal limits and some companies may choose to expand on those limits. This makes a lot of sense, as the safety of drivers is not only important to whatever cargo they’re transporting, but also public safety on the roads and the employer’s equipment.

In another case of a company trying to ensure its workers don’t overdo it, Uber Canada recently implemented a policy preventing its drivers from working for more than 12 hours straight. The company’s app will now block drivers from accepting customers if they’ve been on the job for 12 hours.

Considering studies such as a recent one by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation that found 26 per cent of vehicle crashes leading to death or injury were caused by driver fatigue, it looks like a good move to help increase the safety of Uber’s drivers, customers, and the general public.

But why do some employers not seem to understand the importance of workers getting sufficient rest? In non-safety-sensitive workplaces, it may not seem as important, but the health of workers should be.

The issue is becoming more prevalent as more employers move to contract workers in an attempt to get out of certain employment standards rules. I’ve seen instances where workers are signed as independent contractors without any set hours and a certain amount of work to be done, but through various reasons and events, the work just can’t get done in a reasonable amount of hours. This can lead to contractors working 16 or more hours per day without any breaks for the duration of the contract, and the employer isn’t bound by any statutory overtime or hourly limits. Sure, technically the contractors don’t have to sign such contracts, but a lot of the time, it’s either that or no work at all.

In these cases, the employer may be saving some money by using contractors who are essentially working at a rate much lower than minimum wage, but one has to wonder about the quality of work they’re getting in the last few hours of a 90-hour work week – not to mention I’m sure in most cases the worker isn’t very happy.

We also shouldn’t forget the multiple class-action suits against banks and other financial services companies over the past few years. Most of them had similar circumstances – employees were given work that couldn’t be completed in regular business hours, so many employees had to work overtime. However, the employers had policies that required overtime to be approved in advance and as a result didn’t pay the employees for the extra hours worked.

The problem is, overtime doesn’t have to be approved to legally warrant compensation – overtime worked is overtime pay owed. A work environment where employees find themselves having to work overtime without compensation is an unhealthy and less-productive work environment – and, as many of the defendants in the class-action suits are finding out, leads to big payouts anyway.

Employers that get workers to work long hours frequently and reluctantly may sometimes think it’s helping the bottom line – even if they’re paying the full overtime rates, it can be cheaper than filling a whole position that would reduce overtime – but if the extra hours start to be too much, it can end up being more detrimental for employee health, productivity, and workplace culture, not to mention some employment standards headaches if the workers are being taken advantage of.

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