Unpaid ‘grey’ overtime – don’t do it!

The amount of unpaid overtime done in a year could employ 20,000 people full-time.

How many of us have come to the office ten minutes early to prepare for an important presentation? Or stayed at the office 15 minutes after official working hours had already ended, or responded to an urgent email at the weekend? All these things might seem insignificant, but they are considered as unpaid overtime – or ‘grey overtime’, as it’s sometimes referred to.

Trade Union Pro has evaluated that unpaid overtime accounts for approximately 1.5% of all working time. Unpaid overtime is an issue across several sectors, but it mostly affects those higher up the command chain, such as experts and managers. Trade Union Pro estimates that around two percent of managers’ overall working time is grey overtime, and it affects workers in the private sector the most.

According to the Working Hours Act, all overtime work requires the consent from an employee – and the consent needs to be given each time. However, not everyone has the same definition of what constitutes as overtime: one person might consider an extra five minutes of staying at the office as overtime, while others do not consider veering slightly outside agreed working hours as overtime.

– The reality is that any and all work done outside of official work hours should be recorded, and employees need to be compensated for it, says Katariina Stoor, National Officer at Pro’s Collective Bargaining Department.

The Coronavirus pandemic has also meant an increase in remote working, which has blurred the lines between home- and work-life.

– Employees have the right to proper time off work. This applies to all kinds of work, including flexible working arrangements. If an employee finds that their regular working hours are not long enough to perform their duties, they need to get in touch with a manager, and discuss whether there is a need to work overtime, or whether more permanent solutions are needed, like hiring more staff, she says.

Other options for Pro members include contacting a shop steward, or an occupational safety and health officer, who can monitor the working time records and instruct the employer on work hours.

Pro’s Senior Researcher, Petri Palmu believes that ultimately, free labour turns into declining hourly wage rates, unpaid tax revenues, decreased employee productivity and wellbeing, which in turn increases the risk of illness and the amount of sick days taken.

Grey overtime is free labour.

– Grey overtime is free labour. When all the unrecorded and unpaid free hours are added up, it has huge implications not just at an individual level, but at a wider level.

A well-meaning “unintentional grey overtime job” does not show up in overtime statistics, and employees are not compensated for it. Palmu believes that everyone should refuse to do any unpaid overtime, as it impacts not just the individual, but the entire workforce.

– We have calculated that grey overtime alone accounts for approximately 20,000 person years. This means that the amount of grey overtime done by employees could translate into employing 20,000 people full-time for a year, which would have a significant impact on employment rates, Palmu notes.

The knock-on effects of unpaid overtime

According to Pro Senior Researcher Petri Palmu, free overtime can often be a sign of poor management, or an unhealthy culture within the workplace. When work is not kept within the normal working hours, it often means that more staff should be recruited. 

Often, employees can be apprehensive about saying no to unpaid work, so they go along with what they think is expected of them. This was the case for Margot*, a French national working as a manager in the IT-sector in Finland.

– When I first moved here, I was keen to ‘earn my stripes’. Although it wasn’t explicitly stated, there was an air of competition at the office especially among the management team. I was worried I would fall behind if I didn’t do what everyone else did. We often cut my lunch breaks short, and came to the office early to prepare for meetings or catch up on my work, she says.

– I felt like burnout would be the inevitable outcome if I stayed. I was constantly expected to do extra work here and there, and I was drowning under an unrealistic workload. I ended up quitting and finding another job, Margot explains.

Palmu’s research has found that many employees do unpaid overtime on a weekly basis – and many even on a daily basis.


Adam* works as a researcher, and says grey overtime crept into his life without even noticing.

– I would often check my inbox at home. Soon, all the ‘quick checks’ of my emails at the weekend started to accumulate and it started to have an impact on my family life and I would feel stressed about work even when I was at home, Adam says.

By doing unpaid overtime, employees often think they are being more efficient. But, as Palmu highlights, unpaid overtime does not increase productivity; it lowers it, and employees are actually doing a disservice to not only themselves, but their whole workplace.

– Employees often think that overtime, especially if it’s only temporary, is not a serious issue.  But whenever there is not enough time to do the work within the agreed time, it is an indicator of a lack of resources, Palmu states.

Time off work is crucial for employees’ wellbeing, and it has been proven to have an impact on job satisfaction and the amount of sick days employees take.

– By not having adequate time off work, people are more likely to make mistakes and to be exhausted when they are actually meant to be at work. Separating leisure and work is an important part of a person’s well-being.

*Names changed at the interviewees’ request due to the sensitive nature of the topic.