Labour pain: Why work can be bad for your mental health
As work stress increases, more of us are suffering from depression and other mental health problems. Jim Pollard explains why - and suggests some solutions.
Work is the major cause of poor mental health. That's not the view of trade union leaders or disaffected workers or even of doctors. It's the view of the people who should know best, those with personal or family experience of mental health problems.
In a recent survey for the mental health charity Mind, they rated work-related stress above bereavement, loneliness, redundancy, unemployment and relationship problems as a cause of mental illness. Research by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) suggests they have a point. Nearly a third of UK workers have a mental health problem with one in twenty seriously depressed.
Each year industry loses some 80 million working days to stress at a cost of £5.3 billion. The situation in the United States - the business model to which most UK companies and successive UK governments have aspired - is even worse. One in ten American workers are clinically depressed and the total toll on the economy is over $30 billion. This suggests the situation could get worse before it gets better. In the UK we work long hours - frequently four or five hours a week longer than our European neighbours - and have high levels of job insecurity. A 1999 Joseph Rowntree Foundation report found that two thirds of employees 'always' or 'regularly' worked longer than their basic working hours and nearly a third of full-time male employees were regularly working more than 48 hours a week.
The report found that, over the past 10 years, job insecurity had increased by 28% among professionals, 10% among clerical staff and 9% among managers and it found a direct correlation between job insecurity and ill health. People who felt secure in their jobs were considerably healthier than those who did not.
More of us are also feeling swamped by the ever-increasing volume of information we are expected to deal with. According to Sue Read, author of Workshift (Piatkus,1999), one edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average seventeenth century Briton would have come across in a lifetime. It can be particularly hard to manage the huge amount of data available through the internet.
Set these facts alongside men's traditional reluctance to admit to suffering stress or other emotional problems and you have a potential timebomb. The figures for male suicide - rates have doubled for men under 25 in the last 25 years and increased by half among men aged 25-44 - illustrate graphically where emotional repression plus stress can lead.
Of course, some stress is a buzz but, like most stimulants, too much can be dangerous. You may think you can cope - and you might be right - but it makes sense to be aware of the warning signs of stress and to learn some basic survival techniques.
- a feeling of loss of control
- thinking about work even when not doing it
- disrupted sleeping or eating patterns
- feeling the need for drink or drugs
- a shorter temper
- a reduced attention span
- the inability to focus on one task
- a loss of interest in sex, appearance and life in general
- New technologies including fax, email and the mobile phone are supposed to make our work easier. If they make yours harder, think about how you use them. If you're drowning in irrelevant emails, does your office need an email policy? Do you really need the mobile? Could you make better use of the answering machine? It may well be a coincidence but in Finland, a country where mobile phones are even more popular than here, work-related stress has, according to the ILO, reached epidemic proportions with more than half of the workforce blighted.
- Prioritise your work by making a daily attainable 'to do' list. Writing things down frees the mind for what it's best at. Use notes and reminders and also try writing down how you feel about things. It may help unload the pressure.
- Use your keyboard with care. Take mini screen-breaks - 30 seconds every 15 minutes - and for at least five minutes every hour get up from your desk. Try simple stretching exercises at your desk. Learn to touch type. Don't spend too long on any one task- especially keyboard work. Throw in a bit of filing for light relief. Or for an extended break try to get that cheque out of the finance department.
Click here for stretching exercises you can do at your desk.
- The office is an unnatural environment. Humans have evolved over thousands of years to live outside not spend all day indoors. So get out into natural light at lunchtime. Put a natural light bulb in your desk lamp. Open the window for shot both of fresh air and of negative ions which reduce fatigue. (In Holland, it is illegal to work more than six metres from a window for long periods.) Get some plants - they help normalise temperature, carbon dioxide and humidity levels.
- Keep fit. Swim, jog, play five-a-side or some other team sport. At work, take the stairs not the lift or try getting off the bus a stop early. Keep a bottle of water by your desk to keep your fluid intake up but your coffee intake down. Relax - try massage, aromatherapy, reflexology, chiropractic or a sauna.
- If you do nothing else, talk about the stresses you feel. If your workplace is still clinging to a 'macho' culture that makes this difficult, talk to your partner, friends, trade union representative or see a counsellor - your GP can point you in the right direction.
- Finally, think about your attitude to work. No man on his death bed ever said 'I only wish I'd spent more time at work'. If work is central to your life and self-image, question whether you have the right priorities. Remember: you may love your work but does work really love you? The average shelf life of a company today is four years says Sue Read: 'With downsizing, job insecurity and the Rambo school of hiring and firing, people have begun to realise that in spite of putting all their energies into a company their loyalty may not be rewarded.'
According to Adrian Cole, addiction therapist at the Priory, 'Work addiction is becoming more prevalent and like any other drug it can, if pursued to its conclusion, be fatal. In Japan 10 per cent of male deaths are work-related.' There are 13 Priory Hospitals across the country. They take NHS and private patients and offer a free initial assessment to anyone who thinks they may be addicted. Call 0117 952 5255 for details or click here to check out their website.
Do you believe work is bad for your mental health? Do you think it causes too much stress or makes you depressed? Or do you feel that work actually helps keep you sane? Whatever your experience of work, we'd like to hear your views. All contributions will be published on malehealth.co.uk.
Page created on November 4th, 2000
Page updated on December 1st, 2009