Ask An Adult: Does My Boss Actually Care If I Stay Late?

Does staying late equal working hard? We asked the experts to see if it's worth itIllustration by Sara Andreasson

Ask An Adult: Does My Boss Actually Care If I Stay Late?

by Stevie Martin |
Published on

I leave on time every day. Sometimes, this means I don’t have a lunch break or my hands are on fire (metaphorically, due to the speed of my typing) or I’m crying fire (I cry fire) – because I will get everything done on time if it kills me. Also, once it hits 6pm, my ability to focus completely nosedives while my ability to be really fucking grumpy escalates to dizzy heights.

Year on year, unpaid overtime in the UK is creeping ever higher, now reaching record average levels of an extra 7 hours 48 minutes per week. It’s seen as a mark of dedication, or at least, some people seem to think it is. I’ve had editors who have slyly commented on how their past workplaces all stayed until midnight some days, and some who have mentioned how I always seem to leave on time, but not in an admiring way.

Nobody’s said: ‘Oh, you get all your work done! Well done!’

I have a sneaking suspicion that this idea of work late = work hard is a bit of bullshit. Mostly because I work really hard and if I don’t have an evening off, I get burnout and that’s probably the least productive state of mind to be in.

‘Particularly for people who think it’s very important to go home and spend time with family and friends, or do things other than their 9-5 job then yes, the longer you need to stay, the more you may resent it and you may feel less productive,’ says Dr Rob Yeung, an organisational psychologist at consultancy Talentspace and author of How To Win. ‘You can feel anxious, and even experience burnout,’ he says.

Yeah, so you should just go home! Easy for me to say, because I’ve got a job. And I know that I can do my job, and that my boss trusts me to do my job and everyone’s happy and smiling and rainbows – but with the scramble for jobs reaching unimaginable levels of competition, younger girls who are just starting out in [insert pretty much all industries] feel the pressure to stay forever. And to be the first one in. And to eat lunch at their desk. But is it actually worth it and does anyone actually give a shit?

When I asked my current boss, Rebecca, whether she minded that I don’t stay late, she responded with a succinct, ‘No.’ When pressed, she then added: ‘If you left on time without doing your work, then I’d have a word. But if your work is done, then it’s fine to go home.’

Obviously, I’m coming at it from a specific career perspective – there are other industries out there where staying late is way more normal than it is for an online consumer journalist. Going home on time provided you’ve done everything fits with the culture here at The Debrief, but it’s harder if that’s not what everyone else in your office is doing.

‘I think that the hours you work often depends on your organisation’s culture and the microculture of your team,’ explains Dr Yeung, solidifying all our fears about starting a job and having to prove yourself big time.

‘If everyone else is tending to work until 7 or 9 o’clock and you find you’re finishing super early and it’s becoming a bit of a joke then there’s maybe an issue. On the other hand, you may just be very productive…’

If you find yourself staying late every night, constantly unable to fit your workload into your day, then that’s less something to aspire to and more something to keep an eye on.

‘My boyfriend stays late pretty much every night,’ says Polly (name changed) whose boyfriend works for a large bank in the City of London. ‘He generally stays really late because he needs to get work done, but then that has a knock-on effect – he goes into work the next day really tired, so doesn’t get his work done and has to stay late again, then the same thing happens the next day.’

Of course, his boss not only doesn’t care, he doesn’t actually notice.

‘In an ideal world, yes, your boss should care if they have an employee who’s regularly having to stay late at work – and there’s good research showing bosses who have greater empathy and provide greater support tend to get more productivity and hard work out of their employees,’ says Dr Yeung.

But sadly, we don’t live in an ideal world – and you’re most likely to just be running yourself into the ground for pretty much no reason. Thing is, running yourself into the ground isn’t just a necessity, but often something to aspire towards.

‘It’s actually really demoralising, and he basically gets total burnout once a month when things just get too much, the pressure’s too high, and it’s all just taken as part of the job,’ Polly adds. ‘There’s a support network, supposedly, but it’s not the done thing to go and cry to someone at work about how you’re overworked. It’s seen as a bit of a badge of honour.’

But at what cost? When you’re that overworked, that consistently, it’s going to have a negative effect on both your psychological and physiological wellbeing. To kick things off, apparently those who work 10 hours or more per day are a whopping 60% more likely to have a heart attack. On top of that, if you’re overworked, you’re overtired – which means you’re likely to make poorer food choices, focusing on mainlining caffeine and sugar to get you through the day, which in turn will make you feel even more rubbish.

This has the obvious long-term health concerns you’d expect for someone who drink four lattes a day, has a constant stream of junk food in their system and runs off three hours of sleep a night. You don’t have to be a doctor to see that this isn’t good news – but we asked a doctor anyway and the results were surprising.

Turns out that it isn’t all as cut-and-dry as you’d think, and it’s actually to do with how fulfilling and stimulating your find your job.* ‘*One of the really important things about the impact of work on people’s psychological wellbeing is how much they enjoy work,’ Dr Yeung says.

‘This idea of being absorbed or engaged in your work is really important, so some people might work 80 or 90 hour weeks and they find it tiring, but they cope very well because they find it genuinely engaging, fulfilling and enjoyable.’

A friend of mine works as a lawyer and is consistently up until midnight with various cases – but she rarely complains. ‘I prefer to get stuff done in the evening when I’m in my living room and I’ve got a cup of tea in my hand,’ she says.

‘I’m not going to be out all night on a Wednesday, so what else am I going to do? Watch TV I suppose. But I’m used to it now and I sort of like it – I know that sounds crazy.’

Yes it does, to me, and it also makes me feel like my inability to stay at work late is something to do with hating my job – which I 100% don’t – but actually, perhaps it’s more about personal situations than fitting everyone into a box? A ‘Do You Stay Late Or Don’t You’ box.

When my friend says, ‘What else am I going to do?’, I have a creative side project that I often work on in the evenings, which I’m usually desperate to get to. Conversely, when my side project is going badly, I’m desperate to get to the office to get away from it.

But there are ways you can ensure you don’t spend your evenings chained to your desk, and that’s good time management. There are always ways.

‘Rather than saying “Right, I’ve got a list of 20 things I have to plough through”, always sit back a bit and think, “What are the things that are really important, that are going to make the most impact?”’ says Dr Yeung.

‘You need to ruthlessly work on those important things, then somehow find a way to accept you won’t get everything on your list done – or bat some of those projects to a colleague.’

There’s nothing wrong with good time management and leaving your desk on time, people. Just like there’s nothing wrong with prefering to stay later to get shit done, if that’s what you’re into.

The one thing that matters is that your boss isn’t a dick and you’re hitting those targets (both at work and on the happiness scale), right? So keep that in mind when you’re trying to impress, because ultimately it’s your performance that talks, rather than the marathon hours you’re putting in.

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Follow Stevie on Twitter: @5tevieM

Illustration: Sara Andreasson

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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