Every year I see an increasing number of patients who are overworked and over-stressed.
Workers across the UK and in London are working themselves into the ground, with over 60% of employees overworked by an average of 6.3 hours per week. There were almost 600,000 cases of work-related stress or burnout reported last year in the UK alone.
Most alarmingly, a recent study from Harvard has found that a stressful workplace can take up to 33 years off of your life.
Symptoms of stress vary from patient to patient, but common signs include headaches, agitation, insomnia, and lowered self-esteem. Short term memory loss, lack of enjoyment and difficulty in maintaining intimate relationships with partners are possible consequences as well.
Most of us experience these symptoms from time to time – we consider them a normal part of our busy working lives.
However, working under highly stressful conditions for extended periods of time can ultimately lead to Burnout Syndrome: a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, demotivation and detachment.
The key culprit here is cortisol – a hormone which is released whenever we feel worried or anxious. Released in limited amounts, cortisol is not harmful to us. But when stress becomes chronic, it can start to have a serious impact on our emotional and physical well-being.
A recent WHO statistic shows that long working hours can shorten life expectancy by as much as nine years. Chronic stress, over a prolonged period, has been shown to weaken our immune system, as well as raising the risk of cancer and heart disease.
How to limit stress
If you are feeling stressed at work, reach out to your employer: they have a duty to ensure you feel supported to do your job well. Having a chat with them might be all it takes to reassure you. Don’t be shy about asking for extra training if you are struggling – it puts the onus on them to help you.
Get in to some basic healthy habits. You should be getting seven hours of sleep each night, as a minimum, to get yourself back on track.
Eat well and keep hydrated. Particularly if your job is desk-based, try to incorporate some physical activity into your day – even if it’s just getting in a lunchtime walk. And importantly, make sure you use your holiday and take time at home to recover from illnesses.
While these simple steps can undoubtedly help, I’m acutely aware that the growing incidences of burnout syndrome are a deeper social issue.
We now live in a 24-hour society, connected to the internet 24/7, and there’s an increasing expectation for us to be ‘always on’.
Unfortunately, however, our bodies just aren’t designed to function that way. It’s well documented that accessing mental health support services in the UK is a unnecessarily laborious process and, in many instances, this puts people off from seeking help altogether.
This is likely to become a ticking time bomb for the health of both our workforce and our economy if it continues to go unaddressed.
A positive development that we’re now seeing is that employers’ responsibilities towards protecting their workers’ mental health is now firmly on the agenda. We’re hearing more and more in the media about the possible benefits of a four-day working week, and companies are gradually waking up to the benefits of flexible working.
Some are going one step further, encouraging meditation sessions during the working day, for example.These are small things that can make a world of difference to an employee feeling overworked and under-appreciated.