Burnout: why we should resist the UK’s toxic culture of overtime to prevent exhaustion

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Burnout is now an official medical condition, described as an “occupational phenomenon” by the World Health Organisation. And with so many of us putting in hours of unpaid overtime every week, is it any wonder that we’re all starting to feel the effects of being overworked?

Last year, workers in the UK completed a collective £32 billion worth of unpaid overtime

According to a report from the Trades Union Congress, more than five million of us worked an average of 7.5 hours unpaid overtime a week in 2018, accounting for an average £6,532 being taken out of each of our pay packets. That is a lot of money.

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So, let’s play a game. Imagine that the clock strikes 5.30pm and your working day is over. From this point onwards, your company are no longer paying you to be in the office.

Do you:

A. Pack up your bag and leave – you’ve got plans to meet some friends for dinner.

B. Start to finish up for the day, writing tomorrow’s to-do list and firing off a couple of quick emails.

C. Grab a coffee and a snack and make yourself comfortable for the evening – you’ll be here a while yet.

Everyone’s dream scenario is, obviously, option A. But sadly, the majority of us often plump for something inbetween B and C.

Burnout: how we'd like our office to look by 5.30pm...

A culture of overtime

In fact, when we asked 12,800 readers how often they leave work on time back in 2016, we found 59% of you stay longer than you have to in the office. Only 21% of you manage to leave work on time once a week “if you’re lucky” and nearly 10% eschew leaving the office in order to “work every hour the day has to offer”.

These figures paint a disastrous picture of the practically non-existent work-life balance of women in the UK and, unfortunately, it looks like things are even tougher for women working in the capital.

Statistics revealed by blow LTD, an online beauty service provider, showed that women in London work on average 75 hours more per year compared to the rest of the UK’s female workforce.

While 75 hours spread out over the course of 12 months doesn’t sound too alarming at first, consider that this equates to roughly 10 extra days of work - or a hefty week and a half of overtime a year. 

woman work
Burnout: 59% of Stylist readers stay longer than they have to in the office

Life in London: all work and no play?

As someone who has lived in the capital for the past nine years, I can confidently state that unless your personal motto is “work hard, play hard”, you are unlikely to get far in the (appropriately named) rat race.

After all, as a place of constant innovation and competition, London necessarily breeds workers who strive for the best and settle for nothing less. But at what cost?

“In busy season I can work 20 extra hours, unpaid, a week,” Samantha*, a 26-year-old business psychologist based in London, tells me. “I have to cancel plans all the time, and I feel obliged to stay because everybody else does it. My employer says ‘going the extra mile’ is rewarded, although I’ve only ever had two days in lieu when I’m owed at least 10.”

“I don’t even bother making social plans as I work every night and weekends too,” adds Lucy, a 26-year-old PR manager. “Working overtime is essential just to get everything done. I put in at least an hour every Sunday just to prepare for Monday: it’s a constant cycle of trying to do enough not to anger my boss or clients.”

Missing out on social plans and giving up your weekends in exchange for working long hours for free is bad enough, but working overtime can also damage your health. From an increased risk of suffering from heart disease or a stroke, to the mental health impact of putting in those extra hours, consistently putting in extra hours comes at a cost.

“Our bodies need time to recover from working,” says award-winning psychologist and careers coach, Denise Taylor. “Think of it like an athlete – if they didn’t take time off to recover, they wouldn’t be able to perform.

“Many people are motivated by money but as we get older we realise there’s more to life,” she adds. “More money might get your bigger holidays and bigger cars, but it doesn’t actually make you happier.

“If we don’t look after ourselves we can potentially set ourselves up for an illness. We need to be well-rounded people. Essentially, we need to start thinking about how to cultivate wellness rather than inadvertently laying the ground for illness.”

burnout mug
Burnout: maybe it's time to ditch the motivational slogans, and take it easy for a while

Work better, do more

In addition to the potential dangers for our health, working overtime throws in some serious barriers for women hoping to balance their work life with a family.

Although shared parental leave in the UK is - in theory - helping to alleviate the pressure on a woman being the primary caregiver for a child, the stress of raising a family while pursuing a career continues to be a predominately female problem.

For proof of this, we only need to look at data from the Health and Safety Executive, which found the number of women experiencing the strain of balancing a career and a family was 50% higher than the number of men.

With this in mind, why are we women so ready to gift our employers with our precious free time, often for little or no compensation?

Journalist and author Helen Russell, who swapped her frenetic London life for the calmer shores of Denmark, where a work-life balance is not just valued but enforced, believes the root of the problem lies in the peer pressure that comes hand in hand with living in the capital.

“We’re sold an idea of a high-octane, adrenaline-fuelled city life - the whole Working Girl power-walking-to-the-office-while-psyching-yourself-up-to-take-on-the-urban-jungle thing - so we try to live up to it.

“Crucially, everyone else seems to be doing it. And coping brilliantly. A place like London attracts talent, so there’s a feeling that we have to be on our A-game at all times to keep up - that we can always be doing better or working harder.”


The power of peer pressure

It is, arguably, millennials who feel this peer pressure of living in London the most. The majority of gen Y started their careers smack bang in the middle of a recession when jobs were scarce and an unpaid internship was considered a privilege.

And when you can practically feel your competitors snapping at your heels, the compulsion to prove your worth to a company by being the first and last person in the office every day can quickly become second nature.

Estimating that she works an entire eight hour day worth of unpaid overtime each week, 24-year-old entertainment journalist Nicole describes the need to stay in the office as, “a combination of too much work to do (there’s always something new to write about) and the fact that my boss works super-long hours, which has created this culture of everyone doing the same.”

Ironically, these additional hours of labour actually have a negative effect on the quality and output of her work.

“It’s pretty unhealthy because as a team we’re all stressed, tired and a bit resentful. I certainly don’t think I’m a better writer for it: I’m much slower and make more mistakes the longer my shift goes on.”

woman bed book
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Time is the new money

This is the rub with constantly working overtime – not only do we suffer, but our employers don’t actually have any benefits to gain from us burning the midnight oil, night after night, either.

Studies suggest that working beyond a normal 40 hour week actually decreases productivity. As social futurist Sara Robinson writes in Salon, “increasing a team’s hours in the office by 50% (from 40 to 60 hours) does not result in 50% more output…In fact, the numbers may typically be something closer to 25-30% more work in 50% more time.” Add to this the concept of Parkinson’s Law; that work expands to fill the time we allow for its completion; and it’s easy to see that working more does not heed better results.  

Time is a finite resource and one we must now reclaim in order to have the energy needed to do our jobs - which is why more enlightened organisations are shifting focus. Instead of seeing how much they can get out of people in terms of hours put in, they’re investing in people in different ways (e.g. with flexi-working schemes) to make them more motivated; and therefore, more productive. 

And when you consider that women are effectively already working weeks of unpaid work every year thanks to the dismal gender pay gap it makes those extra hours of overtime seem even more futile.

So put down your pen, shut down your computer and get out of the office: there’s more to life than work.

How you can reclaim your free time and leave the office on time

Are you struggling to leave the office on time and enjoy your social life? Psychologist Denise Taylor offers her top five tips for how to reinstate your own work-life balance.

  1. Decide to do it. Too often we have no end in mind, so set yourself a time when you will leave work and begin the end of work ‘ritual’ 30 minutes before that time. This involves anything from checking and replying to emails, picking up the phone when a quick call is better and creating your plan for the next day, so you can get focused on the job as soon as you arrive.
  2. Be ruthless about how you manage your time. Stop looking at your phone and social media sites throughout the day. Leave that to your lunch break. This helps to separate work from your personal life. It’s easy to get chatting to co-workers but if it doesn’t revolve around your work, leave it to your break time.
  3. Let your boss and co-workers know that you are leaving at a certain time. Perhaps 4pm is a good time to check if there is anything urgent you need to focus on. You don’t want to be asked to write a report at 5.30pm. If anything is given to you very late, respond that you will work on it first thing when you are fresh. Find your inner assertive self.
  4. Have something specific to do in the evening. This could be a trip to the cinema with friends, a dance class, a reading group, a spin session at the gym. Nothing focuses our minds more than when we have to be at a venue by a certain time.
  5. Keep track of extra time spent. If you do spend extra hours keep track. An extra 30 minutes here and there can quickly add up to two days of unpaid work each month. We don’t mind staying late now and again but it shouldn’t become a habit or expected. And if you are doing it consistently, ask about having a day off in lieu – nothing is lost by asking, but make sure you don’t appear a clock-watcher.

Follow these tips and notice the difference it makes: see whether you feel happier, have more energy and a better personal life. Rate yourself on a 1-10 scale on how you feel about your life today, then rate yourself again at the end of the month. You should see improvements, and plan for a way to reward yourself.

Images: Unsplash

*All names have been changed

This feature was originally published in May 2016


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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter

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