Wake up call for the UK workforce

BBC Presenter Andrew Marr recently made a public statement following his stroke about being ‘lucky to be alive’, saying that he had ‘been very very heavily overworking’ the year before.  This brave announcement should be treated as a wake up call to those of us continuously running on reserves and burning the candle at both ends.

It has been estimated that the UK workforce are doing the equivalent of 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime each year, which is equal to one million full time jobs.  The danger of allowing this trend to go unchecked is that we also start to experience fatalities occurring as a result.   This may sound extreme, but it is the harsh reality.

I spent three years living in Japan and experienced first hand how overworking is resulting in 10,000 people dying each year from what they call ‘Karoshi’ – literally translated as death from overwork.

We are fast turning from a race of human beings into human doings.  Our quality of life and our health is suffering as a result.   Admitting that we cannot keep up the pace is part of the problem.  It is easy to ignore warning signs and symptoms in the form of illnesses and ailments, but eventually they catch up.

Unhealthy work habits are fast becoming the norm in the UK and come bearing huge costs to our medical and social support systems.   According to the Government’s Health and Safety Executive in the UK alone during 2011-2012 almost half a million people reported suffering work related stress.

People are also paying the price of overworking with their own health and are also putting the lives of others at risk each time they get into a car or cross the street.  Tiredness kills.

The professions most at risk include doctors, teachers, investment bankers and PR professionals.

A documentary screened in March 2013 on Channel 4 in the UK uncovered the dangerously long hours worked by National Health Service junior doctors, making front-page news.   Investigations uncovered health chiefs avoiding EU directives of a 48 hour work week by allowing doctors to work 100 hour weeks and averaging their hours out over six months.

In the teaching profession a study conducted by Tesconnect in 2012 revealed that teachers are among the hardest working professionals in the country.  The poll found that almost half of all teachers spend more time preparing lessons than they spend teaching and as much as 78% spent time on Sundays planning work for the following week.

It has long been thought that extended holidays somewhat make up for the additional hours worked by teachers, but what about those working in organisations where there is limited holiday allowance?  Long workweeks are somewhat expected if you are working for a small business start up, but in many established organisations putting in 100 hours per week is commonplace too.  Investment bankers and PR executives are among those expected to work long hours because such practice has become entrenched in their company culture.

We must address this issue by bringing in more sustainable strategies for business success.  The work life balance of our nation is incredibly important if we are to ensure economic growth.  Longer working hours may enable increased productivity but only as a short-term measure.  We are not robots.  Eventually our systems fail and everything will come crashing to a standstill unless we find way to preserve health and wellbeing as a priority.

My top tips for turning things around:

The change starts with you.  Be the change you want to see and others will feel inspired by your actions and want to support you.  Collectively we can challenge our unhealthy work culture and bring about positive change.

1. Get clear on your priorities – what do you care about the most in your life?  Does the way you spend your time reflect that?  If not, commit to finding a way each day to spend more time devoted to your priorities and less on other things.

2. Set boundaries – you teach people how to treat you.  If you feel like you are being taken advantage of it is because you are allowing the situations around you to happen. Start reinforcing boundaries and limits in your life, by lovingly asserting yourself.  People may resist at first, but in the long run they will have more respect for you and respond positively.

3. Refuel – you cannot keep running on a tank that is nearly empty.  Make a list of all the things that re-energise and refuel you.  Create space for me-time activities by scheduling them in to your diary and sticking to them as if they were any other important appointment.   Give yourself permission to pamper, rest and recharge your batteries.

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