World Mental Health Day: Office presenteeism is linked to mental health issues in the workplace

The pressure to do more work is leading to a stay-late culture [Photo: Unsplash via Pexels]
The pressure to do more work is leading to a stay-late culture [Photo: Unsplash via Pexels]

Q: When was the last time you left work on time? Do you even know the actual time you were employed to work until? Can’t remember? Thought so. Same.

So when did staying late become the done thing?

Unpaid overtime in the UK is creeping higher every year. A recent survey by Totally Money found that, on average, Brits are putting in 8.4 hours of overtime each week, with 65% not being paid for that extra work. That’s 68 days we’re giving away for free. To put it another way, that’s equivalent of working for free until the 9th of March every year. Yikes!

This dedication to the job doesn’t just manifest itself in working late either: it also includes skipping or working through your lunch break, with four out of five workers slogging their way through their tucker time every day.

But did you realise that office presenteeism could be having a hugely detrimental effect on our mental health and wellbeing?

A survey conducted by The Hoxby Collective to coincide with World Mental Health Day revealed that 33% of workers said they’d suffered from mental health issues as a direct result of working rigid hours.

Of those people, 90% were dealing with excessive levels of stress, 78% had anxiety, 60% were suffering from depression, and 52% had insomnia. Whats more a third of these people had to take time off work as a result of their mental health issues, hows that for counter productivity?

So how have we slipped into this stay-late trap? According to research the biggest reason both genders are working longer hours is thanks to excessive workloads. While others feel the pressure to do overtime in order to move forward in their careers.

“Increasingly workplaces in the U.K. & Ireland are becoming workaholic cultures, fuelled by job insecurity,” explains Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology & Health at Alliance Manchester Business School.

“The more insecure workers are the more they feel they need to show face time, coming early, staying late and working over lunch. This ‘show’ of commitment they think will protect from the next round of redundancies.”

Dr Kay Greasley, from Lancaster University Management School agrees that the demand placed upon employees is growing and this is having a knock-on effect on their work/life balance.

“Employees are expected to work more intensively, meet tighter deadlines and demonstrate high levels of commitment to their organization,” she says. “One way to meet all of these demands is through presenteeism which is now becoming the new normal.”

So much so that workers are afraid to break out of the stay-late mould. “Most simply, [work longer hours] because we see our colleagues do it – especially bosses – and instinctively we want to fit in and worry about what it means if we don’t,” explains Dr Nick Summerton, GP and Medical Director at Bluecrest Health Screening. “It’s one of those great unspoken, un-discussed, un-reasonable, norms that once we’re in the workplace we shouldn’t be ‘slacking’, whether there’s meant to be a formal lunch break or not.”

Dr Summerton also believes that, to a certain extent, we have become somewhat addicted to work. “It makes us feel better about ourselves when we work harder, longer, and receive praise. So, conversely, there’s guilt about taking time out.”

Is it time to break the stay-late cycle? [Photo: Unsplash via Pexels]
Is it time to break the stay-late cycle? [Photo: Unsplash via Pexels]

But while missing out on nights out with your pals and losing your weekends to being on email call is one thing, working overtime can have some pretty serious consequences on our health. From an increased risk of suffering from heart disease or a stroke, to the mental health impact of putting in those extra hours, consistently working over and above comes at a cost.

“The ‘al desko’ lunch has become such a familiar part of our daily routines we’ve forgotten how bad it is for our health and wellbeing,” explains Dr Summerton. “There are formal health and safety regulations on the need for desk-based staff to take screen breaks for physical health. More than this we all need mental breaks. The link between ongoing high levels of stress and heart-related conditions and deaths has been suspected, and now research (published in The Lancet in January 2017) has provided tangible evidence.”

The study by Harvard Medical School suggests that higher levels of activity in the amygdala part of the brain, processing emotions associated with stress, encourages the production of more white blood cells and inflammation of the arteries – leading to heart attacks, angina and strokes.

And this stay-late culture can have a serious impact on mental health too. “91 million working days are lost to mental health problems every year,” Dr Summerton continues. “In 2014 the Centre for Mental Health estimated that the annual costs of mental health problems at work is over £30 billion. Half of this figure was believed to be the result of presenteeism.”

But are all these extra hours actually doing any good in a work-sense? Most experts don’t seem to think so.

“Working through your lunch break can have an effect on your efficiency and ability to concentrate in the afternoon,” explains Jason Downes, flexible working campaigner and MD of conference call provider Powwownow. “It’s the same with staying late to finish work when it isn’t critical, it cuts into much-needed important rest and rejuvenation time.”

So how do we pull ourselves out of the stay-late rut?

Don’t skip lunch

When your emails are piling up and deadlines are looming, it might seem like the obvious thing to do is take your lunch al-desko, but taking a break could be far more beneficial. Studies have shown that getting some fresh air and relaxing for an hour boosts mental focus and productivity. And a lunch-time change of scene can help switch up your creative focus too. “Book a visit to a nearby exhibition or gallery, as this will force you to leave your desk and will likely provide some inspiration to get those creative juices flowing in the afternoon,” suggests Leni Zneimer WeWork Director of Community.

Another lunch al-desko?[Photo: Tookapic via Pexels]
Another lunch al-desko?[Photo: Tookapic via Pexels]

Channel the Danes

Employees in Denmark don’t do presenteeism, instead they impress their bosses by leaving on time and managing their time effectively. With a typical working day 8am-4pm and bosses who frown upon overtime, its little surprise that Denmark has the best work-life balance in the world. The official working week is 37 hours but a recent OECD study showed that the average Dane only works 33 hours a week. So next time your tempted to stay late, think of the Danes.

If you can’t break from work, take it outside

“Hold a walking brainstorm or host a meeting al fresco – the change of scenery will refresh the team,” advises Leni Zneimer, WeWork Director of Community

Work smarter not harder

By working smarter and managing your time better, you could slash the time it takes to complete your tasks. Think time blocking, more effective to-do lists and better email management. “You can break the cycle of staying late and spending long hours at your desk by becoming ultra focused during the hours you do spend there,” explains Susy Roberts is founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts “Research shows that long hours don’t lead to great productivity and if you don’t allow diversions to get in the way, you can achieve a great deal in a shorter working day.”

Don’t be a martyr

If you’ve finished your work, then leave. “Employees shouldn’t feel the need to ‘prove’ they are working hard – employers should trust (and actively encourage) their staff to work in a way that’s best for them,” says Jason Downes. Susy Roberts echoes this. “Be seen to be working hard during the hours you are at your desk; your case for being productive in a shorter working day will lose credibility if you are caught on social media or standing round chatting.”

Talk to your boss

If you still can’t get your work done within your designated hours it might be time to talk to your boss about it. “If you genuinely can’t fit your work into office hours despite really knuckling down, then ask your boss to help you prioritise,” advises Susy Roberts. And don’t be afraid to suggest some alternative ways of working. “Companies which champion smarter working will reap the benefits in productivity and morale,” says Jason Downes. “Whether that’s embracing flexible hours or taking time away from the desk, or simply having a standing or walking meeting, the most efficient businesses are those which encourage staff to use their working time in a healthy and productive way.”

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