Various research finds that a long working week increases the risk of a stroke, stress and mental illness. With an estimated 10 million working days lost to work-related stress in the UK last year, finding a good balance between the demands of home and the job now dominates concerns about the impact of work on health. The Office of National Statistics found more than half of British workers are satisfied with the balance of work and leisure time, while more than a quarter are dissatisfied. The Health and Safety Executive found 1.4 in 100 workers took time off for “work-related stress, depression or anxiety” last year. Some employers reported that 97% of workers struggle with work-life balance.
Practices such as working from home could do more harm than good, research finds, as many employees never ‘switch off’. Flexible working practices can do more harm than good to workers because they encourage an “always on” culture that can have a heavy psychological toll, experts have warned. There is growing concern about the risks of such policies, said ProfGail Kinman, an occupational health psychologist from the University of Bedfordshire and the British Psychological Association.
Working away from the office or part-time can isolate employees from social networks and career opportunities while fostering a “grazing” instinct that keeps dangerous stress hormones at persistently high levels, they said. Flexible working policies can also raise the risk of poor working conditions, and create resentment among colleagues, while the blurring of lines between work and home life is stressful for some people.
“If you keep picking at work, worrying about it, your systems never really go down to baseline so you don’t recover properly,” said Kinman. “You might sleep, but you don’t sleep properly, the effectiveness of your immune system reduces. There are studies that suggest people want a quick way to relax, which is when they tend to drink alcohol and might turn to comfort food.” Time for personal hobbies, exercise and healthy cooking and eating are squeezed out by work, too. Work has become more intense as new technology enables, and even forces, people to work faster, do more, and multi-task, said Kinman. Her research also finds rising “presenteeism” – for example people working when they are ill.
Prof Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists said: “We don’t know why, but there’s pretty good evidence that, for example, there’s a link between psychological circumstances at work and heart disease.” The biggest problem with work-life balance, however, remains not having one or the other – being unemployed or having no social network, added Wessely. “What we really need to change the work-life balance is more meaningful work and more people having more social support, less loneliness, less social isolation.”
Professional bodies like the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and the TUC continue to advocate flexible working and similar practices. But they say there is growing recognition such policies only work when employees are given a choice.
“We know more control and autonomy is effective in reducing stress… but not all working practices have that outcome,” said Ksenia Zheltoukhova, a research advisor at the CIPD. Good management is also widely seen as important.