Working Overtime: Fatigue & Mental Health Risks

Many Australian workers find it hard to switch off and fully disconnect from work as we head home each day.

With technology constantly advancing, the fine line between personal life and work life is becoming increasingly blurred, with many employees working overtime as they are able to access their work emails from home or connect to their work remotely after hours.

Findings from Roy Morgan Research show that not only are workers likely to log into work accounts after they’ve finished for the day, but they are also doing increased amounts of unpaid overtime. The figures showed individuals who remotely access work networks are nearly twice as likely to do unpaid work from home as those who do not.

This overtime work, or an inability to switch off from the day, does not only seem to apply to each work day but it may also include holiday or annual leave periods for some workers. Approximately 35% of Australian workers will check their company emails over their holiday break, compared with 29% of Canadians, 26% of British employees and 25% of New Zealanders.

In this article we take a look at how working overtime or excessive hours can lead to injury, what workers’ rights are should an injury occur, and what a worker could do in the event they are not coping with the demands of a busy work schedule.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in October 2006 more than 505,000 (31%) of wage and salary earners in Queensland usually worked more than 40 hours per week.  Compared with wage and salary earners in other industries, those employed in the Mining industry reported usually working the highest average weekly hours (50.3 hours). Of all occupation groups, Managers reported the highest number of average hours usually worked per week (45.4 hours).

What does working overtime mean for employee health?

Working overtime, long hours, or working irregular hours are some of the factors that can contribute to worker fatigue. Fatigue can adversely affect workplace health and safety and this is a major cause for concern for employers. An employer has a primary duty to ensure, as far as it is reasonably practicable, that a worker is not exposed to health and safety risks.

This extends to ensuring their workers are well rested and not at an increased risk of being subjected to fatigue. If an employer fails to adequately manage fatigue and a worker is injured then, depending on the circumstances, that worker may be able to bring a claim for negligence against their employer.

Providing certain conditions are met, a worker is also able to apply for and receive statutory benefits from WorkCover Qld if they sustain a fatigue related injury. This should be done prior to considering bringing a common law claim for damages against their employer. Such benefits generally include (but are not limited to) payment of weekly wages for the duration they are away from work, and payment of medical and rehabilitation expenses.

Workers too have a duty to manage fatigue, as they must take reasonable care for their own health and safety. If a worker finds that working overtime hours is causing them to become fatigued, or affecting their mental health, they should raise this with their employer. A worker should also avoid working additional hours, where possible, and refrain from undertaking safety critical tasks when they know they are likely to be affected by fatigue.

Who is most at risk?

Some workers are at a higher risk of fatigue because their work typically involves some or all of the factors which contribute to fatigue, for example:

  • shift workers;
  • night workers;
  • fly-in, fly-out workers (FIFO);
  • drive in, drive out (DIDO);
  • seasonal workers;
  • on-call and call-back workers;
  • emergency service workers;
  • medical professionals and other health workers.

Working overtime, long hours, or working irregular hours can not only contribute to work fatigue but it can also lead to mental health issues. The cumulative effect of working increased hours is likely to interfere with the personal lives of those performing them, and this is likely to prove damaging to their mental well-being. According to researchers at University College in London, stressful work conditions, including working long hours, can double your risk of depression.

How many hours a week can an employer require an employee to work?

The National Employment Standards (NES) are 10 minimum employment entitlements that are set out in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth). They, among other things, outline the maximum weekly hours which employees can be required to work.

An employer must not request or require a worker to work more than the following hours of work in a week, unless the additional hours are reasonable:

  • For a full time employees – 38 hours per week; or
  • For an employee who is not a full time employee – the lesser of:
    • 38 hours
    • the employee’s ordinary hours of work in a week.

An employee may refuse to work additional hours if they are unreasonable.

So what is considered reasonable?

In determining whether additional hours are reasonable or unreasonable, the following must be taken into account:

  • any risk to employee health and safety from working the additional hours;
  • the employee’s personal circumstances, including family responsibilities;
  • the needs of the workplace or enterprise in which the employee is employed;
  • whether the employee is entitled to receive overtime payments, penalty rates or other compensation for (or a level or remuneration that reflects an expectation of) working additional hours;
  • any notice given by the employer to work additional hours;
  • any notice given by the employee of his or her intention to refuse to work additional hours;
  • the usual patterns of work in the industry, or part of an industry, in which the employee works;
  • the nature of the employee’s role and the employee’s level of responsibility;
  • whether the additional hours are in accordance with averaging provisions included in an award or agreement that is applicable to the employee, or an averaging arrangement agreed to by an employer and an award/agreement-free employee;
  • any other relevant matter.

Working overtime, and/or an inability to switch off from the work day often contributes to fatigue and can also lead to mental health issues. For employers arguably the best way to control the health and safety risks arising from fatigue is to eliminate the factors causing fatigue.

If elimination is not reasonably practicable, then the risks must be minimised by adopting strategies to manage fatigue. If an employer fails to do this they may be liable in negligence to a worker who is injured as a result of this failure to act.

However, workers too must play a role in managing that fine line between work life and personal life.  Workers must find ways to achieve a healthy work life balance and to recognise and value family and leisure time away from work. It is important that workers acknowledge this and make the necessary changes to their work lives where possible, after all their mental health may depend upon it!

If you have suffered an injury due to working working overtime,or another reason, you may be entitled to make a claim. For a free, no obligations discussion about your situation please call or fill out a free case review form.

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