How to stay well while you work

WHILE THROW­ING THE TOWEL IN IS A COM­MON FAN­TASY, IT MIGHT NOT BE AS GOOD AS IT SOUNDS. SARA BUNNY LOOKS AT HOW WORK­ING BEN­E­FITS OUR HEALTH – AS LONG AS WE KNOW HOW TO NAV­I­GATE THE CHAL­LENGES

Good Health (Australia) - - Content -

‘Toxic en­vi­ron­ments can also lead to low pro­duc­tiv­ity’

We all have those dreams of ditch­ing the daily grind and run­ning off to a trop­i­cal is­land while a mag­i­cal bank ac­count gen­er­ates us mil­lions. But the ex­perts have other news – the ev­i­dence shows that most of us are bet­ter off men­tally and phys­i­cally when we’re em­ployed and that strik­ing the right bal­ance of work, rest and play in a sup­port­ive work­place is the best bet. But that can be eas­ier said than done. Any­one who has en­dured a night­mare job will know the dread that creeps in on Sun­day af­ter­noon as you pre­pare for an­other week, the walk­ing on eggshells around a dif­fi­cult boss, or the ex­haust­ing ex­pec­ta­tion to reg­u­larly stay late. Re­gard­less of whether your stress is due to an in­sur­mount­able work­load, an un­easy of­fice vibe or a man­ager that spe­cialises in put-downs, it’s a si­t­u­a­tion that can eat away at your con­fi­dence and self-es­teem, and be­come de­mor­al­is­ing. We all know about the huge men­tal and phys­i­cal toll caused by on­go­ing stress. In the broader scheme of things, toxic en­vi­ron­ments can also lead to low pro­duc­tiv­ity, un­safe con­di­tions and costly staff turnover. It doesn’t take a sci­en­tist to tell you that hap­pier work­places are bet­ter for bosses, work­ers and busi­ness in gen­eral, so how do you look af­ter your own work­place well­be­ing?

Good, bad and the ugly

As much as the ‘ev­ery day spent on the sun lounger’ sce­nario sounds tempt­ing, aca­demics and med­i­cal ex­perts are unan­i­mous: work is mostly good for us. Hav­ing a job helps us to feel so­cially in­cluded, it can re­in­force our sense of self, and it gives us a sense of pur­pose. In a re­port from the Royal Aus­tralasian Col­lege of Physi­cians, re­searchers found go­ing to work gen­er­ally re­duces psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress, while long-term pe­ri­ods of un­em­ploy­ment al­most al­ways have a neg­a­tive ef­fect on our well­be­ing. The re­port found un­em­ploy­ment was as­so­ci­ated with ev­ery­thing from higher rates of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease and res­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tions to in­creased rates of hospi­tal ad­mis­sions, and the neg­a­tive im­pact it can have on our men­tal health is well-doc­u­mented. But that’s not to say that work is a magic bul­let for help­ing to keep us healthy and happy. A 2017 study by the Univer­sity of Manch­ester re­viewed data from 1200 em­ploy­ees across dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries and coun­tries, and found those deal­ing with a toxic man­ager were not only more likely to show signs of de­pres­sion, but could also be more likely to en­gage in bul­ly­ing them­selves, with in­stances of neg­a­tive work­place be­hav­iours higher over­all when a bad boss was in charge. An ear­lier study from Bing­ham­ton Univer­sity in New York iden­ti­fied two types of man­agers that can cause the most trou­ble at work, those who fit the cri­te­ria for ‘dark’ and those who fall un­der the cat­e­gory of ‘dys­func­tional’. Dark bosses were those who dis­played nar­cis­sis­tic or psy­cho­pathic traits, while the dys­func­tional types were sim­ply bad at their job, where mi­cro­manag­ing was a key as­pect of their lead­er­ship style. Ex­ten­sive re­search is be­ing car­ried out by Aus­tralia’s Black Dog In­sti­tute into the role that work may have in pre­cip­i­tat­ing or pre­vent­ing men­tal ill­ness. Ac­cord­ing to the in­sti­tute, men­tal ill­ness is now the lead­ing cause of sick­ness ab­sence and long-term work in­ca­pac­ity in the de­vel­oped world, and it costs the Aus­tralian econ­omy more than $12 bil­lion per year in lost pro­duc­tiv­ity.

Could less be more?

Through­out the world, re­search is also un­der­way around the ben­e­fits of hav­ing a shorter work week or cut­ting back the num­ber of hours spent in the work­place each day. It’s easy to see why both ideas have been pop­u­lar, but there’s also mount­ing ev­i­dence that less can be more.

Tak­ing a hol­i­day can help to re­duce work-re­lated stress, pre­vent anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion

A Swedish study looked at the ef­fects of al­low­ing nurses to work six hours a day on an eight-hour salary. The re­sults af­ter one year showed the nurses took roughly half the amount of sick leave, com­pared to what they were tak­ing when work­ing the stan­dard eight-hour shifts. The study – known as the Svartedalens Ex­per­i­ment – also re­vealed that six-hour days made the staff 20 per cent hap­pier, and 64 per cent more pro­duc­tive. A re­cent study closer to home looked at the ben­e­fits of a shorter work­ing week. As part of a two-month trial ear­lier this year, work­ers in a New Zealand in­sur­ance firm worked for four days and were paid for five. Re­sults from the 240 staff who took part in the trial showed 78 per cent felt like they could jug­gle work and life com­mit­ments more ef­fec­tively with an ex­tra day of leave (up from 54 per cent), over­all life sat­is­fac­tion in­creased, and stress lev­els de­creased by seven per cent. Fac­tors like com­mit­ment to work and feel­ings of em­pow­er­ment at work also in­creased dur­ing the trial.

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