Overtime should not mean overwork

Working Life

March 10, 1996|By Deborah L. Jacobs | Deborah L. Jacobs,CHRONICLE FEATURES

Now and then, human tragedy reminds us of the dangers of overwork.

The most recent example involves John DeCurtis, a railroad engineer for New Jersey Transit. One night last month DeCurtis worked his usual 12-hour shift, which included a four-hour break. Then, just as he was getting ready to go off duty at about 7 a.m., his boss asked him to make an extra run. It turned out to be his last.

In less than two hours, his train collided with another one coming in the opposite direction. Investigators say he may have overshot a red light. DeCurtis, who was 59 years old and had worked for railroads for nearly four decades, died in his seat.

Several days after the accident, the railroad decided to scratch the grueling overnight shift that DeCurtis had worked. Supposedly, DeCurtis didn't mind the shift or the occasional extra runs, but even if he had, it would have been hard for him to say no.

In a sense, he was like many other workers left to pick up the slack after cost cuts and downsizings. For most people, the result isn't fatal, but long, often unpredictable hours can leave us feeling out of control. We cancel vacations on short notice, eat dinner at our desks as we finish a project that a client "wants yesterday" and scramble to pick up the kids before the day-care center closes.

Union contracts may limit the number of hours a company can require employees to work each day or week. State or federal laws set similar restrictions -- for police, firefighters and interstate truck drivers, for instance. But most other workers have few legal protections, says Nancy Erika Smith, a lawyer in West Orange, N.J. The boss can question your professionalism or give you the ax for refusing to put in those hours.

What bothers me most about overtime is how it tends to come up at the last minute, especially on Friday afternoons. Often, the emergency is unnecessary -- you're just stuck working with a procrastinator who can't get much done until the eleventh hour. Or maybe your boss has no personal life and keeps everyone else working late.

After you see such a pattern, you can take pre-emptive action. Set an earlier deadline for the co-worker who lets things slip. Ask the boss several hours before you usually leave, "I assume you don't need me to stay late tonight?" (A gentle hint for your boss to pick up the pace.)

Let's assume that you're willing to work some overtime, but that on certain days you need to be out the door promptly to get the kids, coach basketball or go to school. Set clear boundaries before a crisis comes up, advises Paul Rupert, a consultant with Work/Family Directions in Washington.

"I'd like to help with overtime, but I have some constraints and want to see if we can work around them," you could say to the boss. Then, instead of leaving your supervisor to solve the problem, suggest a solution. That might mean offering to take work home, or coming in early the next day to finish up.

Other possibilities: Set up an "overtime desired" list, so people who want to work extra hours can sign up; or propose an "on call" list, through which you and co-workers take turns being available for overtime. By making your schedule more steady, such lists free you for other plans. When you have to do overtime, you're not always caught off guard.

Meanwhile, do everything in your power throughout the day to avoid the need to work extra time. Don't send a letter when TC phone call will do. Try to limit interruptions during your most productive spells. Don't vary your quitting time unless there's a real crunch. It's a rare boss who will tell you to go home.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.