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How working overtime impacts on mental health

Do you often work above and beyond your contracted hours, perhaps to get a head start on tomorrow, or because you have too much work? Or is it just something that’s expected of the modern employee?

We recently carried out a survey on UK employees’ overtime habits, and discovered some of the reasons behind the decision to work late, and the effects work can have on mental wellbeing and home life.

Is working overtime expected?

96% of respondents to our survey said they regularly work longer than their contracted hours, and by far the biggest reason given is the feeling that ‘it is expected’ of them by employers. The second most popular reason given was having too much work to complete, with the third most popular reason being ‘to get a head start on the following week’.

These reasons clearly have worrying implications for stress and anxiety levels due to pressure in the workplace, as well as the adverse effect on home life.

Dr Jon van Niekerk, Consultant Psychiatrist and Medical Director at Priory Hospital Bristol, provides advice and opinions throughout:

“A little bit of stress can actually help performance over a short period of time. However, stress becomes unhelpful when it is to such a degree that it overwhelms the person’s coping strategies."

Social media

Our survey also included questions about pressures from social media and personal messages. 83% of respondents felt obliged to reply to a social media message or a text, of whom 41% felt they must do so ‘as soon as possible’.

Interestingly, when the same people were asked what makes them feel most guilty, the most popular answers included ‘not spending time with friends and family’, followed by ‘not returning a person’s phone call’. The other most popular answers were ‘not maintaining a healthy diet’, and ‘not replying to emails’.

“In certain professions, people can become so identified with their role that little else in their life gives them a sense of purpose. This in itself is unhealthy, and it’s important to recognise when you are experiencing work related stress.

“Stress in itself is not necessarily the real danger to your health. The real dangers are usually related to unhealthy coping strategies people develop because of the stress. For instance, limiting social contact with family and friends, not exercising, over eating or skipping meals at work and at home, eating unhealthily to soothe difficult feelings. An unhelpful cycle can quickly develop.”

Neglecting family life

There are clearly implications when compared with the increasing trend for working overtime, as time available for catching up with family and friends, or even cooking a decent meal, becomes severely reduced. Whether at home or at work, people’s minds seem to be ruled by these perceived expectations.

58% of respondents feel more stressed than they did 10 years ago.

It comes as no surprise that over half (58%) of our survey respondents admitted to feeling more stressed now compared to ten years ago. Those aged between 25 and 34 had the strongest feelings of stress, closely followed by the 35-44 age category. Regionally, Northern Ireland residents suffered from stress the most.

Symptoms of stress and anxiety

The physical impact of high stress levels and anxiety can result in a long list of symptoms, with exhaustion being the number one reported amongst our respondents, followed by headaches, perspiration, and increased temper.

As part of our research, we also examined our statistics on the admission of patients with cases relating to stress and anxiety between 2012 and 2015; we found a 17% increase when we compared the same quarter year on year.

“The recent economic downturn has led to certain groups of patients presenting with more work related stress, particularly those that have faced the fear (or reality) of redundancy. Some patients have faced more economic hardship with their hours being reduced or working zero hour contracts. Uncertainty about job security in itself can cause a considerable amount of distress.”

Workplace pressure

The source of all this expectation is harder to pin down, but the results are clear to see. Workplace pressure is still a major source of stress for people in the UK, particularly among younger employees, and the culture of working above and beyond your contract is becoming an unspoken rule. Companies need to be aware of this growing culture, and take steps to clarify or dispel it. On the most basic level, supporting the mental wellbeing of your employees makes sense for a healthy business.

Dr Jon Van Niekerk provides advice for those who, similar to our survey respondents, may be experiencing symptoms linked to stress and anxiety:

“It’s important to look at all aspects of your life and ‘take stock’. Are you managing your job or are you constantly fire-fighting? It’s important to structure your approach to the digital world and be disciplined with e-mails and social media. Sometimes small changes at work can make all the difference; for instance:

  • Make sure that you take regular breaks
  • Have lunch away from the desk
  • Limit caffeine intake
  • Practise meditation or take regular exercise at the start of the day
  • Learn the power of saying no

Seeking help and advice

If the problems are more systemic, it is important to include your line manager and even the occupational health department. If you have anxiety or depressive symptoms that are affecting your ability to function on a daily basis, it is important to seek help and advice from your GP. Effective treatments are available that range from therapy, relaxation techniques to medication and even hospital treatment if necessary.”

If any of these problems resonate with you or someone you know, and you feel you or they may be suffering from stress and anxiety because of work or day-to-day commitments, have a look at our stress treatment and anxiety treatment pages for further information and guidance.

Get in Touch Today

For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0330 056 6020 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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