The move towards flexible working has been positive for many people; it has allowed parents to home school their children, given people greater schedule control and, for many, improved their work-life balance. However, the lines between home life and work-life have become blurred so, the office is never more than a few clicks away. It can make it difficult for people prone to overworking or who use overworking as an unhealthy coping mechanism, to switch off.
Why are some people prone to overworking?
Research conducted in 2012 by NPR came to a surprising conclusion; mothers who worked full time reported having better mental health than mothers who worked part-time or not at all. The findings showed that mothers found juggling family responsibilities more stressful and less structured than the demands of their work life. Perhaps it is because family life is complicated with emotions, which do not factor in at work as much, and, for those mothers, going to work can be more of a break than being at home. However, some people overwork through feelings of obligation, guilt, pride, ambition and a strong desire to prove themselves worthy. These feelings can lead to an unhealthy compulsion to work long hours without taking breaks, which will harm health, wellbeing and productivity.
What are the consequences of overworking?
Some people will justify overworking as creating a sense of control and even as a haven away from family stress. However, leaders should monitor this behaviour because overworking will have detrimental, long-term implications for their people and the business. Research shows that overworking will reduce overall productivity as people who work long hours are subconsciously prone to engage in meaningless tasks to give their brains a break. Fewer breaks also leads to burnout, impaired sleep, impaired memory, substance abuse and heart disease. A report published by the CMI highlighted those busy employees often take on too much, and therefore, rush through tasks, make more mistakes and miss important deadlines.
Although this is terrible for the individual who has overworked, it also has a detrimental effect on the business’s bottom line through low attrition rates, high recruitment costs, loss of productivity, reduced creativity and innovation and higher health insurance costs. The World Health Organisation (WHO) conducted the first global study into overworking in 2016 and found that more than 745,000 people die annually due to stress-related illnesses caused by long working hours.
Spotting the signs of overworking
Leaders can advise their teams to take regular breaks, not log in on the weekends or holidays and finish working by an agreed time of the day. However, it is difficult to enforce this when many people now work remotely and are adults with free will. So, leaders must be vigilant to the signs and symptoms of overworking to offer advice and support to prevent overworking from becoming an unhealthy habit.
Common signs that a team member might be overworking include: being sleep-deprived, lacking in energy, experiencing insomnia, gaining or losing weight, being easily distracted, having a weak immune system, becoming irritable or angry and have trouble balancing work/life priorities.
How to approach a member of your team who seems overworked?
At Marshall Centre, we are lucky to have 100% of our management team qualified in Mental Health First Aid. This course equips the team to spot the signs of mental ill-health, approach those who need support, offer initial comfort and signpost to additional support.
It can be difficult admitting when help is needed, so many stay silent, hoping that someone will approach them first. Trying to address overworking in a formal setting or a performance review may not be the best approach. It might lead to feeling like work ethic is under question or too many mistakes are happening and, therefore, there is a risk of disciplinary action. Instead, try inviting them to take a coffee break or extended lunch with you. In doing so, you will let that person know that breaks are acceptable and expected. It will also get them to step away from work into a neutral, non-threatening environment. Asking open-ended questions (questions without a yes or a no answer) will encourage people talk freely about how they are feeling. Labelling emotions or making non-judgemental observations will also help them open up.
“I have noticed that you seem a bit low in energy lately, tell me more about how you are feeling?”
“You seemed a bit frustrated earlier, can I ask what happened?”.
How can leaders discourage overworking?
Your business employs people who will make their own decisions based on what they believe is right for them. There may be the odd occasion where it is necessary to work extended hours to meet a tight deadline or attend an event. However, it is vital to create a culture where overworking is seen as a rarity and not an expectation. Leaders who understand the value of a healthy, happy workforce to their business will set the standard for a culture of care where people are seen as more than just their job role.
To ensure your people do not feel the need to overwork:
- Set clear expectations about project outcomes and what deliverables to prioritise.
- Ensure that team goals align with strategic goals to focus people on the tasks that must be completed and not on tasks that can wait.
- Encourage your employees to unplug and enjoy activities that are not work-related at lunchtime, the end of the day or when they take holidays.