The pressure of an increasingly demanding work culture in the UK is perhaps the biggest and most pressing challenge to the mental health of the general population. The cumulative effect of increased working hours is having an important effect on the lifestyle of a huge number of people, which is likely to prove damaging to their mental well-being. The Mental Health Foundation is concerned that a sizeable group of people are neglecting the factors in their lives that make them resistant or resilient to mental health problems.
It is estimated that nearly three in every ten employees will experience a mental health problem in any one year. However the recent and dramatic rise in Britain’s working hours would suggest this is likely to increase. One in six people in the UK work more than 60 hours a week (2003 figures).
It is also estimated that stress-related sick leave costs British industry £370 million every year, or approximately 91 million working days. This is half of all days lost.
What are the signs of an unhealthy work–life balance?
A Mental Health Foundation survey found:
- one third of respondents feel unhappy or very unhappy about the time they devote to work
- more than 40% of employees are neglecting other aspects of their life because of work, which may increase their vulnerability to mental health problems
- when working long hours more than a quarter of employees feel depressed (27%), one third feel anxious (34%), and more than half feel irritable (58%).
- the more hours you spend at work, the more hours outside of work you are likely to spend thinking or worrying about it.
- as a person’s weekly hours increase, so do their feelings of unhappiness.
- many more women report unhappiness than men (42% of women compared with 29% of men), which is probably a consequence of competing life roles and more pressure to 'juggle'.
- nearly two thirds of employees 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.
The following actions may help.
- 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 stressand 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 to working longer hours, or try to ensure that you spend your spare time on these things.
- Watch out for the cumulative effect of working 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 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.
How your workplace can help
Your workplace can also contribute to improving your work–life balance. Organisations should:
- promote the messages about work–life balance 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
Get help for yourself or someone you know.
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