Kiwis are working longer hours than ever before – and they’re burnt out. But experts say there is a new solution to workplace fatigue that could save lives. Anuja Nadkarni investigates.
ANTHONY Eggertsen had psyched himself into liking his job. He worked in high-pressure customer service at a US power company for half a decade.
During power cuts he was the communication middle man between workers out in the field and top management, becoming a punching bag for the frustrations at both ends of the service line.
Every morning, he would give himself a pep talk as he walked through the office corridor to his desk. ‘‘I was like a light switch. I would prepare myself and then fake it for 12 hours.’’
Eggertsen says his job robbed him of his personal life. ‘‘I’m naturally a social person,’’ he says. ‘‘I was the guy that was always up to do something. But I became the guy who just didn’t go out because I was afraid I’d be too tired at work the next day.’’
Eggertsen’s story isn’t unusual. A recent survey by Seek found one in three New Zealanders felt their job was stressful and most took their work problems home. Helena Cooper-Thomas, organisational psychology professor at Auckland University of Technology, says people who work too much risk damaging their personal and professional lives. Overwork can affect sleep patterns, incite anxiety and heart conditions as well as weaken immune systems and wear down relationships.
With New Zealand’s unemployment having sunk to a nine-year low, more people are working today, but at what cost to their own well-being?
Cooper-Thomas says new workforce flexibility allowing employees to take work into their homes is a double-edged sword. ‘‘You’re finding people are more autonomous in their jobs than ever before, but these are also jobs where people can’t disconnect and leave. There are constant deadlines and emails that won’t reply themselves.
‘‘With screens being quite addictive it’s far harder to end the day, because bright light keeps you awake and people aren’t as good at controlling when to go to bed because they’re not listening to their bodies.’’
The Wellness in the Workplace survey of 93,000 employees, published by insurance giant Southern Cross and BusinessNZ, finds New Zealand workers have experienced sharp increases in workplace stress in the past two years.
People are increasingly turning up to work when sick. Over 40 per cent of staff go to work sick, despite clear communication from employers to stay at home. This is especially common among staff of smaller-sized businesses.
Among the biggest causes of stress are excessive workloads, pressure to meet work targets, management style and workplace relationships – and long hours.
Eggertsen gained 10 kilograms in his previous job, working 12-hour shifts. He even worked a full 24 hours straight a few times and would think about work when he was in bed.
‘‘That’s zombie state when you do that,’’ he says. ‘‘I always kept my wife in the loop, so she always knew to be prepared. I tried to make it up to her when I could.’’
He felt like he was forced to work those hours because of his mortgage, and the pay.
Lack of sleep has also been linked to over-eating because the body looks for ways to replenish its energy levels and CooperThomas says bad sleep diminishes self-restraint and causes erratic changes in blood sugar levels.
Since leaving his power company job and moving to New Zealand, Eggertsen has been trying to get more active and reduce his sky-high blood pressure and cholesterol.
Omar Ibrahim worked such long hours that his doctor told him he would die before reaching 40 if he did not change his ways.
Ibrahim came to New Zealand from East Africa as a refugee almost a decade ago. But from 2012 to 2014 he worked two fulltime jobs and one part-time job as a cleaner to pay for his university course.
‘‘I needed that job without any qualifications and I was happy with that job but I wasn’t happy with the way I was treated and the low wages. That’s just unfair, the pay, dignity and respect is not there.’’
Some days Ibrahim went to work with just two or three hours of sleep and worked almost 90 hours a week. ‘‘I didn’t have a life . . . My immune system was so weak. If I got the flu I would be knocked down for weeks. The doctor said ‘you’re killing yourself. You’re going to die soon’.’’
The Wellness in the Workplace survey found sick and stressed workers took 6.6 million working days off last year, costing employers as much as $1.5 billion.
The toll on Ibrahim’s health even in the short term was ‘‘absolutely deadly’’. ‘‘You can hurt yourself, or someone else, have an accident. I was sleeping while I was walking – I could have been hit by a car.’’
Once Ibrahim had saved enough to go to university he decided he would change his life and never work like that again.
Personal trainer Alana Joe flipped the switch to change her life around after her high-paying
JASON DORDAY / STUFF