Don't Short Change Yourself - Don't Work for Free

Before I get on to the crux of the article, I first want to dispel any preconceptions about the title of this blog post. This is not a post about charity work, or giving content away for free or working the odd few hours extra so you can meet critical deadlines. What this is about though, is working over your contracted hours essentially for free on a consistent basis. Firstly, not only are you doing yourself a disservice, your family and your fellow employees. You're also setting a dangerous precedent for your employer.

Just for one second imagine you're not a full-time employee but a contractor. You earn an hourly wage and every moment you work extra is reducing that hourly wage. Not only that but every hour you work extra is an hour less you can work on improving yourself, spending time with your family and generally making the most of life. Employers wouldn't expect to give their products away for free on a consistent basis so why should you? They're quite rightly in the game of making money and surviving - and why shouldn't they? Repeat this statement - I am a business too.

I was inspired to write this when a heard a question by a subscriber of John Sonmez on his podcast. The question was “Should I continue blogging for my company in my own time?”. John's answer was “don't work for free”. I had a long think about this. When I first started out as a programmer I was prepared to put in whatever time extra to get the job done by the timescales permitted. However, over time I've learned that there are many major problems with this approach.


First, it quickly leads to burnout and fatigue the longer things carry on. The more time you're spending in work the less time you can invest on taking care of yourself and your mental well being - you're going to be no good to your employer if you can't turn up for work and perform at your best.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Second, I'd question why you're working longer than your 9-5 contracted hours. You should ask yourself why can't you get the work done you need to do in the time you have? Often it's highlighting fundamental problems in either your process, how you use your time productively or a complete lack of resource. Before consigning yourself to “working for the man” for longer than you're contracted to do, break down each of these reasons and find the real reason why you're spending more time at work than you should.

Perhaps it has something to do with the process at your company. For example, if you're finding that there are tasks later in the day that can take a lot longer than anticipated perhaps you can find shortcuts. Can it be automated? Could you perform better preparation up front to reduce the time? Are you able to do chunking (e.g. tackle lots of similar tasks all at once like responding to emails) ? Are you leaving difficult tasks for when you have the least energy so as a consequence it's taking you longer to tackle them?

There does come a time though when there is simply too much work for one person to take on. If that's the case, you need to make it clear to the employer with a justification of adding business value because if you hire someone else to do the work you can't, it'll not only mean your work isn't rushed but it'll also mean you can invest time in growing other parts of the business that will add more value.

Third, if you put in those ridiculous hours over and above your job you're pressuring all of your other fellow employees on a daily basis - before you know it you're all working for free and you're back to a level playing field again. Kind of defeats the point doesn't it? I'm going to argue even here this is self-defeatist for the employer too. Employees will be burnt out and worked to the bone. Apparently in 2011, people in the UK working an additional 1.8 billion hours of unpaid overtime per year costing up to 1 million additional jobs. This is eye watering and has to be avoidable.

Sometimes it's Just Life

Finally, the ultimate idea of putting in a back breaking amount of work is that you'll get recognised for the work that you do, promoted to the roles you want and accelerate up the ranks. I hate to break it to you, smash the pipe dream but this is not always the case. Even those who work insanely hard don't get their just desserts. Why not? Sometimes it's politics and sometimes it's because you're not working in an area and in a way that will truly reward you and sometimes as cruel as it is it's just life. Don't short change yourself. Don't work for free.

Work for a Higher Purpose

Work for a higher purpose. Perhaps you're lacking design pattern knowledge or your knowledge of algorithms is weak or you'd like to work on a side project that's using the latest X technology or language that's trending right now - maybe you just want to read those 12 books that have been gathering dust on your shelf. Use that additional time that you would have spent “working for the man” for both yourself and the man. By improving your overall skill sets outside of your job you can provide added value on the job. Do your job more efficiently and effectively and maybe you'll not even need to spend more time than the 9-5 any more.

Perhaps you want to be a philanthropist outside of work with this mindset you can free up time to do that.

Treat Yourself First and the Rest Will Follow

I'm a firm believer that if you treat yourself well first and foremost, you can take care of others afterwards. On the face of it, this sounds like a very inward looking and selfish perspective but this is completely what some of the most unselfish people in the world practise as part of their daily routines. They meditate, exercise then tackle whatever the day might throw at them. This puts them in the best state both physically and mentally to be of help others.

So question the status quo. Stand up for what you believe in and don't be shy or afraid when your employer leans on you to do all those late nights. Ultimately if they're expecting you to just work for free when they're profiteering off your generosity and your time don't be afraid to walk away. You aren't just a commodity to them. You're a valuable agent available for hire to the highest, most willing and most reciprocal bidder.

Don't Short Change Yourself - Don't Work for Free.

Thanks for listening.

James Murphy

Java dev by day, entrepreneur by night. James has 10+ years experience working with some of the largest UK businesses ranging from the BBC, to The Hut Group finally finding a home at Rentalcars.

Manchester, UK
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