COMMENT: Workstress and working overtime among dutch judges 


Earlier this year, Dutch judges threatened to strike. They were negotiating a new collective labour agreement and felt that, among others, concerns about their high workload were not sufficiently addressed. In the end, the strikes did not happen, but a ‘verkenner’ (scout) is currently exploring solutions to work stress within the judiciary, planning to report their findings in January 2024.

Concerns about work stress among Dutch judges are far from new. Over a decade ago, the so-called ‘Leeuwarder manifest’ gained a lot of attention, with judges stating that they could no longer guarantee that each case got the attention that it deserved. Interestingly,  judges rarely seem to be worried about themselves when publicly voicing concerns about judicial workload. Instead, they point towards the quality of the administration of justice that could be compromised due to the number of cases they have to handle and the limited time they are given for handling cases. They might also state that their profession is not attractive anymore to prospective judges, with overtime being a common practice. Indeed, a recent (but unpublished) time use survey from the Dutch judiciary indicates that first-instance judges work 33,6% overtime, this figure averaging on an even higher 42,3% of overtime hours for judges in the courts of appeal. Dutch judges are not alone in this, as research has shown overtime to be common among judges worldwide.

In my PhD research, I map the strategies that Dutch judges use to deal with work stress with the aim of analysing judges’ concerns about the quality of the administration of justice. As part of this study, I interviewed Dutch judges working in a court of first instance and hearing criminal or migration cases. Working overtime came up in all of these conversations, prompting me to further analyse judges’ perceptions of their overtime work and its consequences for both work stress and the quality of their work.

Judges’ views of working overtime

My interviews indicate that Dutch judges work overtime frequently. They often work on evenings and weekends, on their days off, and might even spend part of their holidays working. Moreover, overtime is considered quite normal, to the extent that everyone works overtime and everyone knows that everyone else does so too. Many judges take overtime for granted as part of their job. Two main reasons appear for this practice. Firstly, judges strive towards hearing the cases of as many people as possible as fast as possible. Thus, although they are officially in charge of their own hearings and could have less cases scheduled or cancel cases, they are unlikely to do so, even if it leaves them with a hearing they consider too full. This can result in preparations for such hearings taking up evening or weekend hours. Secondly, judges’ sense of responsibility includes the notion that their work ‘has to be right’. As they are the ones charged with taking decisions with an enormous impact on people’s lives, they require sufficient time for careful deliberation in each case, and if they feel that the time given does not allow for that, they will invest their own time.

At the same time, judges’ appreciation of the additional hours they spend working varies greatly. Generally, judges consider occasional overtime acceptable as part of their high-status and well-paid job. When overtime becomes a constant and takes up many hours, judges are less accepting. Here, however, judges’ opinions of what is excessive overtime differ. One judge, for example, considers that 10% on top of their official hours should do the job, whereas another judge mentions working ten hours instead of eight every working day and stresses that they do not mind this overtime, amounting to 25%, at all.

More universally shared is the notion that working overtime takes a toll on judges’ private life. Judges mention being hesitant to make plans for the evening, taking their work schedule into account when planning their weekend and having to say no to leisure activities because of the work they still have to do. A judge describes this as ‘an invisible price’ that they pay. A number of judges also refer to tensions at home, such as discussions with their partner and children about household chores and the time they spend working, and feelings of unease about the time they are not spending with their families.

In the end, judges consider their overtime a means to safeguard the quality of their work. As they commonly state, it is thanks to the extra hours they put in that they can guarantee sufficiently deliberated decisions. For some judges, overtime thus functions as a stress-relieving mechanism. They describe not feeling stressed about the amount of work they still have to do, because they know that they will manage if they use their free time. At the same time, several judges voice concerns about the fatigue that working overtime may cause, cautiously questioning their own decision-making abilities at the end of a long day of work.

Moreover, as discussed above, overtime can contribute to stress in private life. It appears that many judges are frequently trying to find a balance between giving their cases the time they consider necessary and limiting the time they spend working overtime. Consequently, they often find themselves in a compromise that fulfils neither of these aspirations completely. This then may result in both stress regarding the quality of their work and stress in private life.


So, although overtime is a common response to work stress among judges, it does not actually relieve much of the stress. All in all, it is more a way to deal with a high workload than a means to deal with work stress. It is a strategy to deliver a verdict in all cases assigned, but does not necessarily resolve judges’ concerns about the quality of their work and is likely to contribute to stress in private life. Thus, in addition to possibly making the judicial profession look unappealing, overtime can also be detrimental to the judges currently in office.

Hannah Hübner is a PhD candidate at Radboud University.