Long hours 'a threat to mental health'

Apr 22 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

A new survey by The Mental Health Foundation has found that one third of people feel unhappy or very unhappy about the time they devote to work.

More than 40 per cent felt that they neglect other aspects of their life because of work, and when working long hours more than a quarter of employees feel depressed (27 per cent), one third feel anxious (34 per cent), and more than half feel irritable (58 per cent).

The survey explored the amount of time people devote to work, their reasons for it, their feelings about it and the impact it has on other aspects of their life.

Nearly one in three employees currently has a mental health problem in any one year. It is estimated that stress-related sick leave costs British industry £370 million every year - or approximately 91 million working days, half of all lost working days.

Recent dramatic rises in the number of people working long hours suggest that these problems are likely to increase.

Dr Andrew McCulloch, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation said: “Despite all we hear about flexible work practices and the new family-friendly policies, the number of people working long hours keeps on rising.

“This is not simply an issue for parents - everyone must realise they need a proper balance to their lives for the sake of their mental health. Workers owe it to themselves to take the issue seriously.”

He added: "Much of the research into work-life balance to date has looked at the costs to industry of stressed employees, through lower productivity and working days lost. We believe there will be serious long-term costs to individuals, and that's why we've carried out this study.”

Three years after the government launched its Work-Life Balance Campaign one in six people are still working more than 60 hours a week. Indeed, over the past two years, the number of people working more than 60 hours has been steadily rising and the number of women working these hours has more than doubled.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, the more hours you spend at work, the more hours outside of work you are likely to spend thinking or worrying about it. And as a person’s weekly hours increase, so do their feelings of unhappiness.

In the survey, many more women report unhappiness than men (42 per cent of women compared with 29 per cent of men), a consequence of competing life roles and more pressure to ‘juggle’.

Nearly two thirds of employees also said they have experienced a negative effect on their personal life, including lack of personal development, physical and mental health problems, and poor relationships and poor home life.

Helping Yourself

Concerned that a sizeable group of people are neglecting the factors in their lives which make them resistant or resilient to mental health problems, the Mental Health Foundation has produced a list of tips for better balance.

  • Take personal responsibility for your work-life balance. This includes speaking up when work expectations and demands are too much. Employers need to be aware of where the pressures lie in order to address them.
  • Try to ‘work smart, not long’. This involves tight prioritisation – allowing yourself a certain amount of time per task – and trying not to get caught up in less productive activities, such as unstructured meetings that tend to take up lots of time.
  • Take proper breaks at work, for example by taking at least half an hour for lunch and getting out of the workplace if you can
  • Try to ensure that a line is drawn between work and leisure. If you do need to bring work home try to ensure that you only work in a certain area of your home – and can close the door on it.
  • Take seriously the link between work-related stress and mental ill health. Try to reduce stress, for example through exercise, relaxation or hobbies.
  • Recognise the importance of protective factors including exercise, leisure activities and friendships. Try to ensure that these are not sacrificed in working longer hours, or try to ensure that spare time is spent on these things.
  • Watch out for the cumulative effect of deciding to work long hours by keeping track of your working hours over a period of weeks or months rather than days.
  • Take account of hours spent worrying or thinking about work when assessing your work-life balance. These are a legitimate part of work and a good indicator of work-related stress.
  • If possible, assess your work life balance in collaboration with your colleagues and with the support and involvement of managerial staff. The more visible the process the more likely it is to have an effect.

They also suggest that organisations should:

  • promote the above messages to individuals in the workplace
  • develop policies that acknowledge the association between work related stress and mental health. These policies should also describe the roles and responsibilities of employees at all levels in the organisation in promoting mental health, and describe mechanisms to support staff who experience mental health problems
  • encourage a culture of openness about time constraints and workload. Employees must feel able to speak up if the demands placed on them are too great
  • give better training to managers so that they can spot stress, poor work-life balance and its effects on the individual. They should also be trained to develop better systems to protect everyone in the workplace
  • promote a culture of ‘working smart, not long’, as outlined above
  • ensure that employees’ jobs are manageable within the time for which they are contracted
  • audit their work environments to identify elements of practice, policy or culture that may be detrimental to a healthy work-life balance
  • regularly monitor and evaluate policies against performance indicators such as sickness, absence and improvements in staff satisfaction
  • allow staff to attend counselling and support services during working hours as they would for other medical appointments
  • encourage activities that promote good mental health, for example lunchtime exercise or relaxation classes.

To check how successfully you are managing your work-life balance try taking the Mental Health Foundation’s Work Life Balance quiz