I usually don't mind working overtime (no additional compensation) because I enjoy my work.

However, it does eventually grate on me. I've enjoyed a minimum of overtime in the past few months but know it's going to be picking up again soon.

When everyone else works over without complaint, how can I decline to without looking like I'm slacking?

  • 7
    Is overtime being asked for expictly? or is it just you feel bad leaving work when everyone else is still there? Commented Apr 10, 2012 at 20:47
  • @Chad - Sometimes it's just me feeling bad leaving earlier than everyone else (on time), sometimes it's necessary in order to meet deadlines that are (and known by involved to be) a little unrealistic. No one's explicitly asking (or telling) me to work over. Commented Apr 10, 2012 at 20:52

8 Answers 8


Culture is an incredibly powerful thing.

Practical answer

  • Culture is hard to change, because it's the momentum that carries any group of people.
  • It's easier to change something about yourself (or your role or your job) than it is to change an organization.
  • Therefore, if you want to decline overtime / overwork without appearing to be slacking then:
    • Try simply declining, but do so without lying about your reasons or motivations - long term, being dishonest isn't healthy. Talk about your stress, or your health, or your outside-of-work priorities, etc.
    • If that doesn't work, or people start to try to shame you for it, consider their response a form of feedback, and decide if you want to work that overtime anyway (adapt yourself to the culture), or if it's important enough to you to move on to another role or another company (leave the culture).
    • If it's important enough to you to try to leave, the sooner you start on this path (talk to your manager, apply for jobs elsewhere, etc.) the better. If you let bitterness build up before you start a plan of action you're much more likely to leave on bad terms, and burn bridges along the way. The sooner you simply move on with respect toward your co-workers, the better it'll be for everyone -- especially yourself.

Philosophical answer

As a first step I would do a reality check, and make sure that your situation isn't outside what is legal. I don't want you to start some kind of battle with your employer - that pretty much never ends up well - just make sure they're fulfilling their responsibilities as far as this is concerned.

Beyond that, like I said, culture is a very powerful thing, and when there's a great fit between the culture you enjoy working in, and the one in which you actually work, it does amazing things for your job satisfaction.

I've worked in similar places, and have had similar challenges. In any gathering of humans under any organizational structure, you're going to find that how people have a lot to do with the social norms within that group. In many cases, if this becomes a long-term problem for you, you may need to think about changing your role within the organization (to one that is more to your liking), or searching for a company where you can do similarly fulfilling work, but has a culture that is more in line with your personal beliefs about life, work, outside obligations, etc.

Unlike what many believe, not all companies are the same, and cultures within organizations are as diverse as the people who work there. There's way more choice than many people commonly believe in the way work can feel, and how the people around you will naturally approach it when working within various work cultures.

  • It can be incredibly hard for certain personality types to say no to other people. It can be even harder if (for example in an academic position) there is multiple roles in the job and turning down the unpaid overtime means turning down the part of the job that you like and keeps you interested. It's not an easy question to answer.
    – Stephen
    Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 6:54

The easiest way to decline working overtime without looking like you are slacking is to:

  • be awesome at what you do when you work your usual work hours, and
  • don't waste time, i.e. don't do a lot of "undertime" during your working day.

If you can demonstrate you are a valuable, productive problem solver and team player by delivering results, then having a personal policy of not working "regular" overtime should be a defensible a position. You won't feel like a slacker and you won't look like a slacker. Aim to produce business value, and not an impressive timesheet.

You may still want to consider the odd, rare overtime occasion, when your team really needs the extra help to meet a deadline during a real crisis. That will get noticed and appreciated.

Whereas the every-day, usual overtime rut that people fall into due to peer pressure? It's a false economy, and usually a sign of management having failed at the basic tasks of project planning and the allocation of available people to required tasks.

p.s. If your employer's business is billable-hours-driven, e.g. consulting, or your overtime is otherwise directly correlated to additional revenue for the company and you're not getting paid a cent for extra hours worked, then there's incentive for management to encourage overtime because it improves gross profit margin. If this applies, a career change might be something to consider. Billable-hours-driven businesses, IMHO, tend to value time worked over results delivered. Not my cup of tea.

  • 3
    Well said. My experience of companies with an overtime culture is that there is a lot of "undertime" during the day; people feel like "why work hard, I'm going to be stuck here doing overtime anyway". You definitely want to avoid slipping into that groove if you intend to be firm against unnecessary overtime. Commented Dec 16, 2012 at 6:26
  • 4
    One memorable quote I read: "You can make people stay at the office for 80 hours a week. You can't make them work more than 40 hours a week. "
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 21:16

Make the case that you are much more productive at work if you limit your overtime. Having a life outside of work takes your mind off of the problems you are trying to solve during your work time, and allows you to have a fresh perspective the next day. If you are a high performer during the hours you are at work, and you meet your milestones, there's not much your team can say about your preference not to work extra hours.

  • 7
    This is a logical, reasoned approach. However, in my experience, a company culture that sets unrealistic deadlines and encourages working overtime is not so likely to be that reasonable. They may not be a believer of results oriented management. Commented Apr 14, 2012 at 4:46

If nobody explicitly asked you to work overtime, I'd try just limiting yourself to normal working hours and seeing if anyone remarks on it. Make sure to have a good reason ready if they do ("I'm more productive if I can relax in the evenings" works, as does anything family-related). If may turn into a valuable opportunity to discuss work policy/culture! (And whether it's a good idea to set unrealistic deadlines...)

It's possible that nobody will mention it or complain, if you're still perceived as productive. In that case, good for you!

You may even start a trend among your coworkers - perhaps most of them would like to go home earlier, but nobody wanted to be the first to do that.

  • 4
    I've actually tried this, and it went fine for a while. I told my management multiple times that I would burn out if continued, and offered solutions to redistribute the work or adjust the timelines. The bosses didn't go for that, I burned out, and then I stopped working so much overtime and gave longer timeframes for when things could get done. No one ever commented on the lack of night and weekend work, at least. Commented Apr 14, 2012 at 4:50

I'd say you have several choices:

  1. Accept the culture and work within it (what most people do)
  2. Confront the culture

    This requires a lot of tact and patience and choosing the right time to bring things up.

  3. Change the culture

    Bring up publicly how long hours are detrimental in the long term and why they should not be done.

  4. Ignore the culture

    Set your own hours, announce them and stick to them consistently. People will often find over time that consistency and reliably beat out 'long' hours... from employees who are less consistent in their times on a day-to-day basis.

  5. Start a new culture

    Come in early. This has been my techniques in many places. Given that 'long hours' often really means "staying late", counter this by in coming early... and then you can leave (relative to others) early (or at a normal time). This is good idea in office where there is pressure to not be 'first to leave' and you have a boss or co-workers that regularly leave late which would otherwise put a lot of pressure on you and others to do the same.

  • This has a good set of options without assuming anything. Some places it simply is the whole reason of a high salary that the people are working overtime and delivering time-critical services. Some working time laws may prohibit these 80-100 h. weeks where projects are pushed to end fast, but that is the whole point of the business. There you simply need to accept. Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 15:07

You must consider many things:

  1. Is overtime extra paid? Do you really need that money?
  2. Does refusing to work overtime will cost your work? How easy it would be for you to find another work?
  3. Does overtime become danger for your health and your social life? Note you have only one life!

Use some overtime tracker (smartphone app) just for yourself. It must always show a clearly visible balance of your current overtime (hours worked versus expected hours worked, assuming the set hours per week). The tool will give you "permission" to end the working day, allowing to somewhat ignore your feelings that may be misleading. Tracker eliminates the need to set the time to leave in stone, rushing home in some really bad moment (from the late meeting, for instance).

If the overtime is allowed and hard-working culture is extremely heavy yet you need this job, configure the tracker for more required hours per week. It still will be the limit so better than nothing.

There is an Android app written by the developer to solve exactly this his personal and psychological problem (the employer was against the excess overtime). It may not be the best overtime tracker ever but serves well for this specific purpose, and I would like to recommend it.

  • I have read other posts, from that weronika and Jefferson (both 10+ upvotes) say I still think that the personal/secret tracker app may work in some cases. Keeping the answer.
    – eee
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 11:43

Involuntary overtime isn't good for anyone, including you, co-workers, or the company. Yes, even the company, because the company is much more successful when results are delivered as planned and everyone is happy. Consider this an opportunity to proactively address the problem starting with yourself.

Approach your boss to explain what's going on and, as long as they agree, tell them how you'd like to start improving things.

Take time to re-evaluate everything you've been assigned, come up with what you believe are realistic estimates for how long everything should take, then add another 10 or 15 percent to be safe.

Come up with the total of hours you have available for work and budget time for anything that subtracts from this time, like meetings or other random tasks you have to take care of. In our department, for example, people plan their daily schedule with 6 hours of work and 2 hours of meetings and miscellaneous things that come up.

The total hours of work and total hours of availability should allow you to create a schedule of when you can complete the work. You might need to pad the time again to be safe. It's much better to be safe than sorry.

End result, you'll have created a schedule that allows you to avoid working over time. When you arrive on time and leave on time, people will be impressed with how well you manage everything (hopefully).

There are two potential problems.

Your boss may insist you work over time. Maybe the argument is that they pay you well enough to cover extra hours when needed, or perhaps they assume you are working a flexible schedule of leave early when things are slow and work late when things are busy. Just ask them if work life balance is important to them, because it is for you, and see if they can help you find a way to make that happen.

Your co-workers may feel you aren't doing your fair share of the workload. Just be transparent with what you're working on and accomplishing, and reserve time in your schedule to catch up with them and do whatever you can to help.

Also, something else that might be helpful in case you're not already familiar with it, check out something called the project management triangle. To give a brief description, everything you're working on is impacted by time, scope (features and quality), and cost (resources). Changes in one item will result in adjustments for the other items. For example, increased scope will require increased time and cost. Your resource cost will generally remain the same, unless you get a raise, so your goal is to set realistic expectations on defining the scope of work that completed within a reasonable amount of time. Most people hate creating estimates of how much time their work will take, and so they just work overtime and expect that people will appreciate their contributions. Realistically though, everyone is much happier when everything goes smoothly.

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