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It's time to make time

31 October 2011

It's time to make time


According to the latest research from the CIPD we’re now more likely to become long-term sick from stress than cancer.  How have we let this happen?


Apparently having a ‘bad boss’, fear of redundancy and increasing workloads are to blame, but to my mind, the problem goes much deeper: we’ve forgotten to take care of ourselves and each other. Our colleagues at work are no longer our best buddies and ‘I haven’t got time’ has become our mantra for not looking after ourselves and turning a blind eye when we see someone else struggling.


I don’t know if we can ever get back to a world where we all clock off at 5pm, stop to properly chat to our colleagues at work (complete with tea and cakes served by a trolley lady), eat dinner with our families every night and have the breathing space to say “Hey are you okay, let me help,” to a fellow colleague in need.  But I do know that organisations are stressed from top to bottom and something needs to change.  The question is what?


It’s scientifically proven that we’re at our most productive when we work in short bursts of around two hours to achieve a certain goal then take a proper break of 15-20 minutes to walk around, munch on a piece of fruit and focus on something totally different.  Yet who actually works like this?  Checking email at the same time as completing a task has been shown to reduce our IQ by more than the effects of smoking marijuana, yet most of us still check email and try to do a task.


Perhaps the reality is that something as simple as formally implementing productive working practices, such as instructing people to prioritise an achievable number of tasks each day and work towards their most important goal, free from interruption, for the first two hours of the day, followed by a proper break, would go an incredibly long way towards solving the problem of ever mounting stress.  Not to mention create a positive cycle whereby the more productive and successful people are the more productive and successful they become.


Maybe we could go even further by assessing people on output, rather than time input, and actively encourage employees to go home as soon as they’ve completed a day’s worth of activity to a high standard.  Would people abuse the system or would they welcome the opportunity to work more productively to earn back an hour of their life each day?  An hour that could be used to avoid the rush hour, spend quality time with their family or friends, indulge in a hobby or just get an extra hour’s sleep to wake up in their own time feeling refreshed the next day.  If anyone’s brave enough to try the experiment let me know how it goes?


There was a time when as a nation, we revelled in being rushed off our feet and pulled in several directions at once.  But now the UK has the worst long-hours culture in Europe, bringing with it sleep deprivation and workplace conflict, as well as domestic relationship breakdowns, little or no contact with your children during the week and now the marked increase in mental health problems, I think it’s safe to say the novelty has well and truly worn off.


Its sad that we’ve let ourselves get into this state and ridiculous that despite the severity of the problem, anyone who finds themselves unable to cope or suffering the overwhelming exhaustion, total loss of self-esteem, insomnia or panic attacks that accompanies an emotional breakdown will have to wait several months to be referred to a counsellor – assuming they’ve had the courage to actually admit they have a problem when, despite its prevalence, mental illness is still greatly stigmatised.  All at a time when the government wants to tax people for using the Employee Assistance Programmes the most caring employers out there have paid to put in place to keep their people well!


If there’s anything useful to be learned from the shocking news that something as preventable as excessive workplace stress now poses more of a threat to our long-term health than something as dreadful as cancer, it’s this: that it is preventable.  People simply mustn’t be allowed to hit rock bottom.  Much more support needs to be provided early on, from educating people to seek early help as soon as they realise they’re not able to respond to situations in the way that they used to, to providing them with immediate access to the talking therapies that have been proven to be so beneficial early on.


It’s simply unacceptable that, according to Dame Carol Black’s Mental Health Review, only 3% of organisations are able to offer employees access to a comprehensive mental health service, and that the strict criteria set by secondary support services often means that only individuals who are suicidal can avoid waiting several months for help.  The report found that of the 5.5 million people in the UK suffering from a mental health disorder (primarily depression and anxiety), just 1.3 million were receiving support.


At the same time, we as employers need to do much more to encourage good working and lifestyle practices to prevent people from becoming unwell in the first place. Sleep, nutrition and diet really do make a difference when it comes to maintaining good mental health – so allowing people to work through lunch and late into the night not only renders our most important and vulnerable assets unproductive; it also damages them.  Yes, there are times when everyone needs to push themselves that bit harder to overcome a challenge or meet a deadline – but when that’s the norm, it does more harm than good.  Under severe pressure, the most minor factor can pushing people over the edge and into a mental breakdown.


So let’s do it.  Let’s introduce more productive working practices, increase our people’s access to talking therapies and encourage them to take better care of their health. But most of importantly of all, let’s stop telling ourselves, “I haven’t got time.”


Royal College of Nursing reduces stress related absence - read article 


Ways to reduce workplace stress - download our free guide