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Overtime Considered Harmful

I recently read the book Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency. My previous post on Working Smarter, Not Harder already discussed the main premise of the book. However, DeMarco writes compelling arguments on other issues, one of which is overtime.

Much analysis has been done to determine the correlation between software function points / lines of code and work effort. This analysis has shown that using workdays is more reliable as an indicator/predictor than using workhours. The result is that "overtime is explicitly ignored in projecting effort required to perform new work" (Slack, page 64). This means that on average, working overtime does not mean more is accomplished than working a normal work day. DeMarco identifies four reasons why overtime hurts enough to offset the effect of the added hours:

  • Reduced quality
  • Personnel burnout
  • Increased turnover of staff
  • Ineffective use of time during normal hours

(See Slack, pages 65-70 for further elaboration on these four points.)

This analysis matches my personal experience. When doing lots of design & coding, I am often mentally exhausted after 7 or 8 hours - I'm no longer at my 'A' game: I get slower, make more errors, and take longer to figure things out. I can sometimes push myself to go as long as 10 hours, but usually that only works when I've had meetings or other non-mentally-draining activities to break up my day. And I certainly don't try to do that more than one day in a row. Why not? Because I've experimented with working 9-10 hours for multiple days in a row, and I don't find it to be a maintainable speed.

Working regular overtime (more than a week or two) has a significant negative impact on a person. Factors such as increased stress, strains on family and personal relationships, less sleep, and less exercise all add up over time to affect an individual's mental, emotional and physical health. Over time, this can result in increased physical illnesses, lack of motivation, and eventually complete burnout. During my university years at a summer manual labour job, one supervisor who had been working extreme amounts of overtime (70+ hours per week for several months) had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized.

This ties in to DeMarco's discussion on turnover, which I found quite interesting. He makes the point that turnover has a cost in terms of hiring & training, and this 'human capital' cost is seldom explicitly measured and tracked. A manufactoring company makes capital investments in factories and equipment in order to produce goods, and these investments are carefully tracked. Knowledge companies invest time & effort in hiring & training employees, but how often is this tracked? A quick test for managers: what is the annual turnover rate for your company / department, and how does it compare with the average for the industry? How much does this turnover cost your company? Think about this before continuing with the next paragraph. If you don't know, then try making a guess.

DeMarco mentions studies which show that "companies whose turnover places them in the best third of the sample are experiencing less than half the turnover loss of those in the worst third" (Slack, pages 67-68). The annual turnover rate was measured at 35% in the computer field as of 1990. An estimated 20% of the average company's total labor expense is turnover cost. (Steve McConnell. 1996. Rapid Development, page 293). I'm interested in seeing more recent statistics on this - let me know if you come across any.

I feel that overtime is harmful, both to the workers engaged in it, and to the company itself - especially regular overtime. As a call to action, just say no to overtime and make our industry a better place to work.

(The title of this post is adapted from the title of a famous article titled Goto Considered Harmful by Edsger W. Dijkstra.)

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8 Comments on “Overtime Considered Harmful”

  1. Dwayne says:

    An interesting post, deserving of a few comments/com-rants (as I sit here doing work all weekend)…

    First, None of this is new, yet the syndrome persists. Have you ever read “Soul of a New Machine”, which is about the hardware side of the same subject? I think most people miss the fact that most of the team burns out and everyone quits by the end of the book. And that book is hitting its 25th anniversary this year. Nothing changes. So, Basil, what’s the cure, beyond unionization?

    Second, where’s your head? “Just say no to overtime”? It must be nice to be independently wealthy. It’s the economics of the situation (see the Dilbert “Engineers in the Mist”) that drive unnecessary OT, so only those of you that can afford to be unemployed can say screw the OT. Personally, I can’t. I can hate it, and I can change jobs when it’s too much, but I can’t avoid it.

    Third, I am sure you know that, at least in the province of Alberta, IT professionals have been singled out by the gov’t as being ineligible for overtime pay, by law. Your employer has, sadly, every right to ask for OT with no compensation. You can only vote with your feet, and there’s always another set of feet so the employer doesn’t see the problem. The short-term dollar in the bank beats the long-term dollar cost of turnover every time.

    The business I currently work for (and most of those I have worked for before) _explicitly_ ignores internal costs, in terms of work hours, for its projects. Of course, this bizarre behaviour is perfectly sane when overtime is free, and believed to be free of consequence.

    Finally, some more whinging. :-) Almost all deadlines are artificial, but deals are made and broken based on them, and the people that make the _real_ money from the deals (sales people, business owners) have _no_ incentive to change things. Too many deals come down to pissing contests between vendors and clients, or vendors and their competition. I doubt that this will ever change. I once challenged a friend that was starting a new consulting company as to what he would do if a client demanded an unrealistic deadline. He bravely stated “screw that”. I checked on this later and, yes, the golden rule won out: “the man with the gold makes the rules”.

    Can’t tell that OT is a sore point with me, can you?

  2. Dwayne says:

    By the way, in your quote from Demarco, what makes a company in the same “best”? Does Demarco actual prove a _causal_ relationship between low OT and being “best”, or just a correlation? I suspect that his definition of best must be pretty narrow, and must not include Microsoft.

  3. The quote that “companies whose turnover places them in the best third of the sample are experiencing less than half the turnover loss of those in the worst third” is not actually refering to the quality of the companies – all it is doing is demostrating the wide variance in turnover. If you rank companies by turnover, so that the lowest-turnover company is at the top (best), then the top third are experiencing less than half the turnover of the bottom half of the sample.

  4. Just saying ‘no’ is difficult. Ideally, as you say no, you explain why overtime is harmful (feel free to reference this article :), and the manager experiences enlightenment and agrees. It may seem unrealistic now, but slave and child labour were once considered acceptable and that was changed, so maybe given sufficient time overtime can be minimized. I have heard stories of developers saying no to overtime when everyone on the team is expected to do overtime, and keeping their job. I’ve also heard of jobs being lost as a result. I think it depends on the manager and how valuable (irreplaceable) you are perceived to be.

    I never really thought about it while writing the article, but your comment has me thinking that unrealistic deadlines are probably one of the leading causes of overtime. Another leading cause is probably corporate culture (i.e. Microsoft, EA, start-ups).

    I deliberately did not go into the issue of uncompensated overtime. I don’t agree with the practice, and have been able to avoid working at places that expect it.

  5. As a consultant working in IT industry, I find this issue often. The only genuine reason for OT should be the economics, if e.g., a customer deliverable can make or break you/ company, then it may be worth the trouble. In practice, the issue is more complicated and in some sense – socio-technical, socio-economic etc. Some of the factors which encourage OT behaviour:

    1. Management. If they reward based on face time, then more often than not employees learn the behaviour over time. If this is organisation culture, then in some sense it starts from hiring stage itself.

    2. Peer pressure. If most of peers are working OT, it is difficult for the other few to justify avoiding it – even for genuine reasons like family needs. In such cases, it is crucial how management behaves. Usually employees take cues from managers and there is no explicit clarification(or just platitudes). Especially if managers themselves are working hard, then one can avoid OT only by being highly productive and known for it. It may still not help your social standing in organisation though.

    A lot of it is probably buried in human psychology and sociology and group behaviour. If management allows too much flexibility, they fear losing control. If manager makes concession for a highly productive employee, it may cause resentment in others. And if the highly productive employee was made manager (exact reverse of Dilbert principle), he/she may have trouble managing others. Throw in competition, constantly changing technology environment, and customer pressures, and the recipe is perfect for OT.

    Now if I think about it, it seems a necessary condition for OT should be change of some sort. The evolving technologies, competition, and customer needs are constantly impinging upon the organisation, and it probably creates need for OT. In a stable business environment/technology/, it may not exist, probably there might be some research on this already. But how many businesses / industries today exist in such conditions, save for some public services etc?

  6. [...] Overtime Considered Harmful by Basil Vandegriend [...]

  7. Abhay Sarup says:

    The reasons for overtime are many but most can be attributed to bad planning. Projects tend to become like battles to achieve objectives. Thus I would substitute Project Management jargon with plain and simple English. Here goes…

    The mess starts with business development prmising the world to the client. And then that promise is percolated down the delivery tree without a mention of the caveats from the negotiations and this finally hits the poor technical bloke (the leaf). Resolving this requires a systemic cure rather than a patch fix.

    The objectives of the organization have to be redefined to stress on the following priorities
    a) Looking at people’s work lives as extension of their lives and not vice versa
    b) Planning to involve the delivery team’s representatives in decisions that will be used to drive them to achieve the objectives

    And organizational culture flows from the top. As Napoleon stated, “There are no bad soldiers, only bad officers.”

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