Tanya Woolf, Head of Psychological Services at Yorkshire-based mental health company Onebright, discusses the impact of excessive hours on mental health.
In June 2022, companies and businesses across the UK began trials for a four-day working week with no reduction in their pay. This step was taken to help employees who may be struggling with their work-life balance and to improve productivity. Full-time employees in the UK work two and a half weeks more a year than the average in Europe.
The issue with excessive work hours
If you ask people why they work such long hours, they will cite excessive, competing and/or unrealistic deadlines, too little resources (mainly meaning too few members of staff) and the drive for greater profitability or to manage reduced budgets.
While there is undoubtedly a degree of accuracy in some of these perceptions, sometimes we can be our own worst enemies. One of the aspects found in CBT sessions is that clients believe that their work and performance should always maintain a “perfect” standard. For people who think this way, “good enough” is not an option, even when clients or managers are entirely happy with it. Even for those of us not driven by perfectionism, our tendency to focus on things that don’t matter much or to procrastinate, can be part of the problem.
What of the genuine external pressures?
Managers and/or clients may be bullying people into working excessively or just pressuring them to do so. By combining these aspects together, you have a “perfect storm” of staff driven to work excessively due to their own internal beliefs, and organisations that drive staff excessively due to a combination of bullying management, excessive focus on profits/cuts or their own fears of clients and losing business.
What does this result in?
The pressures of strenuous working hours can contribute to poor health outcomes for the people doing their work, both physically and mentally. The pressures can also result in poor performance due to sick leave and presenteeism – showing up for work but performing at a poor level or barely at all. It can ultimately also lead to poor outcomes for the work itself.
There have been many studies over recent decades on the impact of excessive work on people’s performance. They show consistently that performance drops off a cliff once a person has worked in the region of 8-10 hours on a regular basis. Fatigue means we slow down and make more mistakes. Concentration levels can go, so we have to keep checking our work and we end up taking two hours to do something that should only take 30 minutes.
Taking the strides to improve productivity at work
The key to improving our health and our work performance is not working to excess and focusing on tasks that matter most but rather scheduling and prioritising. The use of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in reducing the working week (by as much as 15-20 hours for people who work extremely excessive hours), contrary to beliefs and expectations, can improve the productivity as well as the performance of employees.
CBT can be helpful in treating issues related to perfectionism, including the fear of failure and associating self-worth with performance, by replacing flawed beliefs with more realistic ones. It’s highly structured with the aim of finding solutions to problems in a short time frame and helps employees to break down problems into manageable chunks which are dealt with in steps.
The next step is for organisations to instil cultures and practices to reflect that approach. We don’t necessarily need to reduce it to four days a week but certainly reducing it to 35-45 hours per week should improve staff health and wellbeing, productivity and performance. This will ironically likely increase organisation profitability due to better performance and productivity among staff.