Is Britain’s toxic culture of “soldiering on” creating a pandemic of work stress?

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Anna Brech
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As health secretary Matt Hancock calls for an end to a culture of “soldiering on” in times of sickness, are our attitudes towards presenteeism and overtime creating an illness all of their own? 

Whether or not you agree with his politics, Matt Hancock’s plea this week for employees to stop “soldiering on” when they’re ill is both correct and long overdue. The health secretary pledged to end the culture “that as long as you can get out of bed, you should still get into work” as part of a raft of ongoing measures to fight Covid-19

But coronavirus is not the only risk associated with overwork; the effect of working too much is a sickness all of its own. Long before the global pandemic struck, Britain’s toxic work habits were building into a perfect storm for a nation that’s exhausted and on edge.

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With workplace burnout at an all-time high – a study last year found 90% of UK workers feel stressed most of the time – our toxic attitudes to presenteeism, overtime and being busy are becoming more dangerous by the day.

What’s more, the recent shift to working from home may well make the situation worse: boundaries between work and personal spheres are easily blurred, and many of us feel pressure to be forever present online.

The effect of all this is corrosive; it’s deeply damaging but its toll often goes unseen. Here’s how we got to such an insidious place, and some small steps we can all take to turn the tide. 

Too scared to take sick leave

sick day
Many of us feel guilty about taking time off

The problem: 

Hancock’s not wrong with his assertion that we tend to work through sickness: over 80% of 24 to 35-year-olds don’t take time off when ill. As a nation, we are also taking fewer sick days than ever before. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the number of sick days taken per worker per year has almost halved since 1993; back then the average worker took 7.2 days of sick leave a year, whereas in 2017 that figure had plummeted to 4.1 days. Mental health problems play a particularly worrying role here, too. The stigma around it means employees may be even less likely to take time out due to anxiety or stress, as opposed to something like the ‘flu. 

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The solution: 

You need to get out of the mindset that being ill is somehow linked to weakness, or not pulling your weight. In fact the very same presenteeism that compels people to “tough it out” in times of sickness is linked to an increase in anxiety, stress and depression. So you’re doing yourself zero favours by not being kind and allowing yourself ample recovery time. Try to resist the caveat that you can work from home instead of making it into the office. Even during non-Corona times, if you’re ill, you’re ill. Working in any sense of the word will make you feel worse, and sets up false expectations of what you can truly achieve when you’re knee-deep in a nasty stomach bug.

A culture of unpaid overtime

The UK is the unpaid overtime capital of Europe

The problem:

One in nine people in Britain work up to 60 hours a week, with those aged 30-49 most likely to put in long shifts. Unpaid overtime is a big factor in this picture, with employees putting in on average seven hours of unpaid work a week (that equates to a massive £35 billion in unpaid work per year). This gives Britain the dubious title of being Europe’s capital of unpaid work; a fact that’s surely not coincidental to our skyrocketing burnout rates.

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The solution:

Clearly, leaving work on time is the way forward here, but – as one Stylist writer’s diary on the topic shows – this is much easier said than done (especially with remote working). Start by keeping a note of when you begin and end work each day: you may be surprised by the amount of overtime you put in without even realising it. Then set an alarm on your phone for your leaving time, and arrange an activity to do straight after. Whether that’s a virtual HIIT class or an online pub quiz, a set commitment will force you to stick to your timings – no matter what deadlines are looming.

The lunch break that’s no longer a thing

A woman cooking
The traditional lunch break has been eroded

The problem:

A galling study from Staffordshire University earlier this year showed that 82% of us now routinely skip lunch breaks, with anxiety and guilt a key reason for doing so. This means that a central part of our working day – the ritual our European neighbours have made into an art form – is disappearing because we feel bad about it. The most many of us can hope for now, it seems, is a hurried sandwich al desko. Again, the habit of not breaking for lunch may have become worse with the work-from-home shift this year, as we remain perennially glued to our laptops.

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The solution: 

Multiple studies have shown the link between lunch breaks and values such as engagement and productivity. In other words, you’re making yourself miserable and less focused by not taking time out. If you seriously struggle to get a standard midday hour in, psychologist Claudia Hammond suggests taking “micro-breaks”. Talking to Stylist Live recently, she said that while our instinct is to “just press on” and reward ourselves with a break after a deadline is finished, the quality of work would likely be higher if we could take that breather beforehand. Even something as simple as stretching out for a few minutes in a dark room can have a powerful effect as your “prescription for rest”, she says. 

Why is it that we feel unable to take a break?

So there you have it: a few simple ways to change up your working day, and fight back against entrenched presenteeism. After all, it’s not the hours of work you do that count, but the work you do in those hours. Create this balance in your own life, and you’ll form part of a larger movement towards a healthier, happier work culture – a change that’s long overdue.

Images: Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.