With UK sick leave reportedly the lowest on record, we could be fooled in thinking the modern workforce is healthier than ever. However, the reality is almost two-thirds of employees have worked during their annual leave or when unwell.
These alarming statistics are contributing to the rise in a growing epidemic – Work Separation Anxiety.
Understanding the problem
These days it can be difficult for employees to fully switch-off from work. Thanks to online file-sharing platforms and email access on phones, employees get caught up in work, even when away from the office.
Although this isn’t necessarily a problem on its own – and can be positive for facilitating flexible working benefits – it becomes an issue when work becomes all-consuming and starts to take a negative toll on employees’ health.
Staff end up taking work home with them in the evenings and replying to emails all weekend, without taking a proper break. This not only creates an unhealthy relationship with work but can translate into their personal lives, putting a strain on relationships and exacerbating other health issues.
As a result, employees burn out, with exhaustion and mental fatigue impacting their lives and work. Burnout is now even a recognized medical condition, defined by the World Health Organisation – so, why is it becoming such a big problem?
Work Separation Anxiety is an unsurprising result of the growing expectations in today’s workforce. The distinction between work and personal life is becoming increasingly blurred, with many employees expected to deal with work issues and check emails outside the office.
Many aiming to get ahead in their careers also believe one of the key ways to do so is being ‘on call’ at all times, but this responsibility can be draining. Employees remain in a heightened state of stress for too long at the expense of their health.
The pattern is cyclical, with overworking causing poor health, and poor health has a knock-on effect on their performance at work.
Employers can play their part in minimizing employee burnout by working with staff to ensure they understand their responsibilities, for example knowing their contracted hours and that they shouldn’t be regularly exceeding them.
The European Court of Justice recently ruled staff should not be working more than the 48-hour maximum work week and should take proper rest breaks. For businesses, it’s not just a matter of decency anymore, but a legal requirement to ensure staff aren’t overworking.
Spotting the signs
It’s unlikely many employees suffering from Work Separation Anxiety would open up to colleagues about their struggles, for the same reason they’re overworking in the first place. They may feel they’ll be seen as weak or their managers will lose respect for them.
So, it’s important line managers are trained to spot signs and symptoms of overworking in colleagues to be able to offer help.
Common signs may include failure to delegate tasks, canceling annual leave or working while on leave, plus persistently working from home outside work hours.
Making occasional adjustments to fit in work isn’t a cause for concern, especially for those in more senior roles, where it may be required from time to time. But employers and managers should be able to identify signs when these behaviors are negatively impacting employees.
There may be physical symptoms like tiredness and headaches, plus changes in usual behavior, like a short temper or unproductiveness. A study even found persistent stress stopped the body from properly regulating the inflammatory response of cortisol, meaning over-workers are more susceptible to colds and illness.
If you spot these signs in an employee and are worried about their health, take them aside for an informal chat and let them know you’ve noticed some behavioral changes. Ask them if they’re okay and if there’s anything you can do to help relieve some of their work stresses.
Try to create a culture of openness, where employees feel they can share their feelings and talk openly about any work or personal struggles they’re facing. It might be the first step towards realizing they need to make positive changes.
Successful support comes from company-wide buy-in, starting from the very top. If employees see senior managers taking full lunch breaks and sticking to their 9-5 routine, they’ll be more inclined to follow suit, as they know they won’t be seen differently.
Look for training courses which address symptoms and solutions for overworking and make sure managers are educated on how to address these with their colleagues.
Employers offering support to those dealing with Work Separation Anxiety need to consider which interventions will help struggling employees.
Speak to your employees to understand why they’re struggling to disconnect from work and ask what adjustments you can make to relieve some of the pressure they’re feeling. This may include re-scheduling some of their workloads so they’re not taking work home with them or having to work weekends to meet deadlines.
Consider inviting a stress management expert into the office to share tips on how to switch off outside of work hours.
Most importantly, think about how your workplace may be contributing to the problem. Do you have international clients who require employees to check emails during the evening because of the time difference? Making simple changes like offering more flexible shifts may help employees build a healthier work-life balance.
Making the changes is a positive start, but employees need to know about your initiatives and how they can take advantage of them. Make regular contact with the staff however they prefer to receive company information – like email, in person or over the phone – and emphasize the programs readily available and their advantages.
Once you’ve started to notice positive changes, implement ways to measure the effectiveness of your new policies. Combining hard and soft measures, like recording sickness absence and handing out satisfaction surveys will help you review employee buy-in.
About the author: Jenni Wilson is a Corporate Director at Nuffield Health. She oversees enhancing client relationships, growing new business, and building Nuffield Health’s connected health strategy for its corporate clients.
During her time with Nuffield Health Jenni has been responsible for the organization’s corporate fitness accounts and clinical services, such as physiotherapy and occupational health.