Tue, May 25, 2010 - Page 16 News List

[HEALTH] What to do when work is getting you down

Stress is on the rise because of the global economic crisis. Here’s some tips on how to survive job insecurity, huge workloads and those very long hours

By Emine Saner  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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Ruth, a company consultant, used to work 16-hour days. “I would get up at 4am and be at my computer by 4:30am,” she says. “I was working six, often seven, days a week. I didn’t see my husband for months. Even when we’d go away for the weekend, I’d take a laptop. Whenever I complained I was told I wasn’t being paid to complain.”

Ironically Ruth worked for a firm that offered well-being at work courses for large corporations. Yet when she asked for her own hours and workload to be reduced, she was simply told to visit her general practitioner for treatment. She coped, she says, by smoking and drinking, “completely the opposite of the ‘well-being at work’ message I was promoting every day.”

It came to a head when a colleague questioned Ruth’s ability to take on a project. “I was told that I wasn’t coping and wasn’t stable,” she says. She was asked to visit her general practitioner, but her doctor agreed that she didn’t need to be signed off work, she needed her workload readjusted.

Instead, in January, Ruth was fired. “I had never had a bad performance review in my life, no client had ever complained about me and I had been given a pay rise,” she says. “But I was told I was a risk to the business.”

Stress in the workplace is on the rise in the UK, thanks to the recession, according to a new study from the mental health charity Mind. A survey of 2,000 people found that half reported that morale at work was low, one in 10 had visited their general practitioner for treatment for mental health problems as a result of recession-related stress, and one in five had developed depression as a result of pressures at work. And only 38 percent of respondents thought their employer did enough to support their staff. Last month, another report, by Roehampton University and the poverty charity Elizabeth Finn Care, found that depression had risen nearly five-fold as people dealt with unemployment, longer hours and job insecurity.

“It is worrying how many people sought help for work-related stress,” says Emma Mamo, policy and campaign officer for Mind. “We want employers to address the issue and provide more support to staff who are experiencing problems.” This can include ensuring staff have a better work-life balance, offering flexible working and monitoring workloads. For staff who have been signed off, “employers should make returning to work as easy for them. Some steps — such as changing the working hours so someone doesn’t have to deal with the rush-hour commute — are easy and don’t come with a high price tag.”

Last year, a survey of 39,000 people by the business psychology company Robertson Cooper found that a quarter had struggled into work despite being physically ill. “You’re ill, but go to work anyway because you’re frightened of not going to work,” says Cary Cooper, co-founder of the company and professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University. “Britain has the longest working hours in Europe by far,” he adds. “People are turning up to work earlier and staying later because they’re frightened to death that they could be vulnerable to job loss. And that is very bad for us. The evidence is clear that if you consistently work long hours you will get ill.” But long hours aren’t the only problem, says Cooper. “People have had to cut their labor costs so there are fewer people doing the work, which means workloads have increased. And bad managers are dangerous for your health. If you don’t feel valued, that affects your self-esteem, which can affect your health.”

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