‘Always on’ culture is causing burnout and sleep problems

Posted by
Emily Reynolds
Women are particularly affected by burnout

Too much work is making us ill – and for women, the burden is even heavier.

Burnout is one of the biggest issues of the day. Demanding bosses, an overload of work and the technology-induced blurred lines between our work and personal lives has led many of us to feel stressed, exhausted and overwhelmed – and means we spend a lot less time doing things we love and enjoy outside of work. One recent study even found that just 3% of our day is spent on things we love. 

Now new research from tech company Microsoft has suggested that ‘always on’ culture has permeated our workplaces – and that it’s affecting our personal lives in a big way, too. 

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If you’ve not heard of always on culture, you’ve probably experienced it. The term refers to the idea that we’re now always available: because our email is also on our phones, we don’t leave it behind in the office. Instead, we spend hours outside of work replying to queries, making plans and even taking calls.

The practice is rife. Of those surveyed, 56% said they had answered work calls out of hours and 43% saying they felt they needed to “prioritise work over their personal lives in order to be promoted”. 

As you might expect, this is taking its toll. The survey saw 86% of respondents say they had “issues switching off”, and 80% saying they’d had trouble sleeping because of anxiety around their work and availability. Single parents were under particular pressure – only 26% said they were able to prioritise their children because of their work commitments. 

Flexible working can be part of the solution to the pressures of always on culture, but the survey found that only 35% of those who were able to work flexibly said they actually felt welcome to take it up. 

More research, from sleep company Dreams, has also highlighted how anxiety-induced bad sleep is impacting the British workforce, and in particular women. It found that work-related sleep issues were “rife”: three out of four employees suffer from poor sleep, leading to poor performance at work, days off, and a vicious cycle of anxiety and insomnia. 

Sleep problems affected the working days of 25% of those surveyed – and the same percentage suggested that a good night’s sleep helped them enjoy their work more and get on better with colleagues.

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Solutions are somewhat more difficult. Sleep is the “sole responsibility of the individual”, said 63% of business leaders, and 39% said there is “nothing they can do to help employees’ sleep health”, suggesting that answers are unlikely from within businesses themselves.

But, as the Microsoft survey shows, work-related stress is a huge contributing factor when it comes to poor sleep.

Dreams has now launched a ‘Sleep Action Plan’ within its own company – and it could prove a useful template for other businesses across the UK. The plan includes sleep health training for managers, conversations about sleep to be introduced as part of annual reviews, access to a sleep helpline and sleep trackers being provided to staff to help them understand their sleep patterns.

Crucially, the company has also indicated that it will be implementing a “sleep supportive culture” – which includes discouraging out of hours working.

As burnout increases, and more of us struggle at work and at home with exhaustion, stress and anxiety, steps like this will be essential for businesses to implement. And whilst the onus of responsibility undoubtedly lies not with us but with our employers, putting down our phones when we go home in the evening could be the first step to freeing ourselves from always on culture. 

Image: Getty