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
‘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.