Work related stress is a leading cause of absenteeism in workplaces in the UK and the U.S. On average we spend at least 35% of our waking hours at work, and if we are not happy in our job then it tends to have a far reaching impact on other aspects of our lives, affecting our relationships, sleep, physical health and ability to relax.
Long term exposure to stress, if left unaddressed, is highly likely to develop into depression, anxiety, or both. It seems obvious then that what we choose to do for a job, and how we choose to structure our working life, is essential for our overall happiness. But how often do we question whether aspects of our working lives are causing us unnecessary stress? Common factors of our day to day working lives may well be having an impact on your mental health, and if they are, maybe now is the time to start questioning certain aspects of the daily grind.
1. Rush hour commutes
According to Time,
"A new report from the U.K.'s Office of National Statistics finds that people who commute more than half an hour to work each way report higher levels of stress and anxiety than people with shorter commutes or no commutes at all."
Who decided that it was a good idea to have everyone travelling on the roads and trains at the same time every day? On average throughout your lifetime you spend one year commuting. Not only is this not the best use of time, but it also has a significant impact on our mood throughout the day.
I can't count the amount of times that I've left my house in the morning in a great mood, and by the time I've been underground, hot and sweaty, smelling someone's armpit for an hour, I've arrived at work stressed and dreading the same journey home. Flexible working hours, or the option of working remotely could eliminate this part of your day completely, or at least reduce the number of days you have to subject yourself to this level of stress.
2. Open plan offices
"Open plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They are associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated and insecure..... They are often subject to loud, uncontrollable noise which raises heart rates, releases cortisol, the body's fight or flight "stress hormone", and makes people socially distant, quick to anger, aggressive, and slow to help others,"
says Susan Cain.
The structure of modern day working life hinges around the 'extrovert ideal', which for the quieter among us can often have the opposite effect of making us anxious or increasing stress.
How many times have you put off making an important phone call when the office is too quiet for fear of people around listening? Or been unable to concentrate on an important email because the people at the desk next to you are having a loud conversation? Open plan offices are not always conducive to concentration or calmness of mind.
3. Nine to five hours
According Carl Robertson,
"The 9-5 is dying a slow and painful death. Nearly a third of part time workers state that they choose to work less than 40 hours a week because they value the flexibility that part time work gives them to follow their passions. Flexible hours reduce stress levels in employees by empowering them to take care of their personal priorities in life, whilst still achieving great things at work."
Unless you are working in a service that requires you to stay open specifically between these hours, the hours of 9-5 are outdated and counterproductive in many ways. The fact is, these hours don't work for everyone! Individuals' body clocks work differently from one another, meaning that whilst one person may experience their most productive, energetic hours in the morning, another person may not feel energised until the afternoon.
This is particularly true of those suffering from a mental or physical illness, or taking medications, where the waking up process has to be more gradual. Flexible hours, including later starts and later finishes, provide a much more reasonable alternative for mental wellbeing, as well as cutting out the additional stress of a busy rush hour commute.
Once again along the theme of modern day working life meeting an extrovert ideal, meetings are designed for talkers. They require the confidence and outgoing personality to command the attention of a whole room of people, an idea which not everyone is comfortable with (but which many do their utmost to pretend that they are).
This is a part of office work life that I have personal experience of causing stress and anxiety in the past, causing me to dread a certain day of the week for the knowledge that I would have to speak up in front of a large group. I have many friends who report a similar feeling, even to the point of sleepless nights in the lead up to an important meeting.
This level of stress accompanying your job is not healthy or sustainable, especially when the same ideas could be shared in other ways, such as in writing, in smaller groups, one to ones, or web chats, which would make all feel more comfortable.
5. Limited leave
We all have reached a point in our lives where we need to take some time off. Our holiday allowance of between 20 to 30 days is not always enough for us to get the head space that we need. Unfortunately we live in a professional world where if you asked for a month or two away from your job, even unpaid, it would be unlikely you would have a job to return to.
Not only does this cause more stress on the part of the employee, forcing people to stay in jobs when they are overloaded, but it is also short sighted on the part of the employer. A more flexible approach to employees taking partly paid, or unpaid leave, in times of mental instability, would pave the way to a healthier, more motivated workforce in the long run, rather than the increasing number of sick days that we are now seeing taken by employees.