Overworking can severely affect your physical and mental health. (Credits: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Overworking has been rife since the pandemic began, and way before that too.
But in recent months, financial insecurity, difficulty coping with the stress and grief of the crisis, and the blurring of work/life boundaries have increased for almost everyone.
Though working from home is a flexible benefit that many workers want, many of us who were thrust into it with little warning have found that we can never switch off.
There’s nothing to mark the end of the day anymore, no commute to physically separate your home life from your work life. So we keep our phones on, laptops open, and email or slack notifications coming, because what else is there to do?
This has exacerbated an existing culture of overwork, particularly for young people, who are entering an increasingly insecure world of work for less money, fewer benefits, and higher expectations.
Being a ‘workaholic’ and embodying a ‘girlboss’ attitude of sleeping four hours per night and working on six side hustles over a seven day work-week is hurting us all.
The pandemic has given us a chance to recalibrate our work lives, and ensure that we work to live rather than live to work, but so many of us haven’t been able to take it up as some employers are pressuring people to return to the office, with some even threatening to cut people’s pay if they don’t.
Setting boundaries is important to combat overwork. (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Overworking ourselves, and failing to strike a balance between work, socialising, relaxation, and family, is damaging us both mentally and physically, says Aliva Rose, Psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).
As Rose puts it: ‘We are not machines, we have to have a balance. And if we don’t, it can be very dangerous.’
She explains: ‘Overworking for long periods of time could lead to emotional breakdowns or physical ones too. You see people having heart attacks from work-related stress, an increase in mental health issues, and extremely high anxiety especially.’
A survey conducted by Sodexo Engage showed that 44.9% of people surveyed self-reported stress at work was affecting their home life and 37.9% had sleepless nights over work, while 27.7% were taking medication to help deal with stress caused by their work.
In many industries, people are struggling to find jobs and so, when they do, they are reluctant to stand up for themselves or leave the job for fear of financial insecurity. Additionally, there is no guarantee when leaving a job due to overwork that a new job will be any better.
There are plenty of structural issues – such as the pandemic, housing inequality, social inequality, caring responsibilities – that we as individuals cannot fix overnight. However, if you recognise that you are overworking and need to stop, there are small changes to make that could help depending on your circumstances.
Rose says that the first step is to recognise the symptoms, such as intensified anxiety, tiredness, using alcohol, drugs or cigarettes as coping mechanisms, stress eating, or going out too much and essentially ‘working hard, playing hard’.
After this initial step, it’s about identifying the cause.
She says: ‘Ask yourself why do you overwork? Is it because of your boss or your colleagues putting pressure on you? Is it a fear of job loss, and the looming threat of financial insecurity? Or are you doing it to avoid dealing with other problems in your life such as a break-up or a difficult family matter?’
Though all of these issues play a big part in overwork, in her work, Rose says it is the fear of job loss or avoiding other problems that are the most common reasons for overwork.
Dennis Relojo-Howell, the founder of Psychreg and a PhD researcher in clinical psychology at the University of Edinburgh, adds: ‘Being workaholic can be compared to other forms of addiction; workaholics prioritise their workloads over their other commitments, such as family and friends.
‘One of the key difference between a workaholic and a productive individual is that workaholics struggle to disengage themselves from work-related issues.’
Rose recommends going to therapy above all else, if it is accessible to you, but because of an ongoing mental health crisis in the country affecting the NHS and the high cost of private care, it may not be an option.
There are however small ways of changing your work life and setting the boundaries necessary to stop yourself from overworking.
Rose says: ‘You have to contain your work, and put it in a particular time frame. It doesn’t matter what time you start or finish, so long as you only do the hours you are meant to do and take a full lunch break.’
Additionally, whether you are working from home or in the office, try to make sure you move around a bit and get some fresh air – even for five minutes – because it can reduce anxiety and can help you step away from work more consistently in the future if you start small.
Relojo-Howell agrees: ‘It is also important to set working hours, and stick to them. If this is difficult to implement within your workplace, you may wish to address your workplace culture through suggesting mental health training.’
Though overwork is a chronic problem that will not go away overnight, if we collectively start setting boundaries with work, maybe we can make a difference in the long run.
‘We are not machines,’ says Rose. ‘We can be scare-mongered into working like maniacs, or we can stop buying into it and do what’s best for us.’
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