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working overtime

What working overtime is really doing to your health

Statistics suggest that Britons gave their employers over £31 billion of free labour in 2017. Upon revisiting this in 2022, Britons gave their employers over £27 billion in free labour throughout 2021. While more than half a million of us claimed to have suffered from depression, anxiety or stress as a result of our job. This all begs the question - does the UK have an overtime problem?

Early one morning at the start of the year, Mary Daniels* had begun her usual commute to work in east London.

It was Monday, the weekend already a fading memory. But this wasn't a simple case of start-of-the-working-week blues. Daniels, a 34-year-old civil servant, felt a sense of dread deep within the pit of her stomach at the thought of the mountain of paperwork on her desk and welter of unread emails in her inbox.

She'd have to work late again, for sure.

Approaching the bus stop, she registered a passing car and suddenly had a strange thought. "What if that car hit me? Not hard enough to kill me; just a clip. What if I ended up with a broken leg? How long would that get me off work?"

As quickly as the vehicle sped on by, Daniels' dark reverie subsided, and she continued on her journey. But looking back, she recalls the morning as the moment she realised she had become utterly consumed by her working life.

Nine months earlier, things had felt so much brighter. Recently married, she had begun a new job in local government, an environment Daniels entered soon after leaving university in the hope of 'improving people’s lives'. With the role came added responsibility, but this was something she had anticipated and relished.

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Not enough hours in the day

Soon, however, she found there didn't appear to be enough hours in the working day to tackle her mounting caseloads.

Within a matter of weeks, 10-hour days became 14-hour stints in the office, not including site visits. This wasn't part of the deal, she considered, but she chose to push ahead; her overtime shifts becoming so normalised as to be unacknowledged by her boss and colleagues around her.

"I was driven by the weight of the responsibility," she says. "And when you see senior people working these long days, you feel a sense of obligation to match those hours, even though you aren't compensated for that time and you can't take it back."

At first, Daniels set a rule for herself - that, barring exceptional circumstances, she would always be home in time to have dinner with her husband. However, the insidious creep of longer hours had already set in, and there always seemed to be another piece of work that stood in the way of her desk and the door.

"I had this rule, which at first meant going in earlier in the morning," she says. "Then it became longer evenings, which meant I was expanding my day from both sides. Then I needed to work on the weekend to keep up to speed. I told myself it'd make the working week that bit easier - but it didn't pan out like that."

Part of a wider problem

As it turns out, Daniels had become a member of a growing legion of UK workers putting in longer shifts for no remuneration. According to recent research by the TUC, the amount of free overtime worked by Britons last year amounted to over £31 billion, while around five million people were found to be working an average of over seven hours of work a week without pay.

While lower than figures for 2016, which suggested workers gave their employers £33.6 billion of free labour, the TUC's latest study makes for concerning reading.

Our own Patient survey (of over 500 people) mirrored the trade union body's conclusions. We found:

  • 1 in 3 people do 6-10 hours of overtime every week.

  • Nearly 1 in 5 people (17%) work over two days of unpaid overtime every week.

  • 95% of people surveyed said the following was negatively affected by working long hours: their leisure time, diet, sleep, mental health, and even their relationships.

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The health implications

The impact of working excessive overtime hours can be felt both physically and mentally. In Daniels' case, there were health problems that she struggled to explain at the time.

"I started feeling dizzy out of nowhere," she recalls. "Adrenaline was getting me through the day, but at home, I'd feel poorly. At first, there were headaches, and I began to get anxious over really normal, humdrum things, like what I wanted for tea. I was also anxious that I felt like I wasn't good company, a good wife or a good friend."

Such symptoms are commonly associated with overstretching oneself in the workplace, says Dr Ellie Cannon, author of a new book Is Your Job Making You Ill?

"You can divide this up into two parts," she explains. "There's stress, which includes the feeling of being overwhelmed, being unable to concentrate and feeling very negative about things. These are classic signs of overworking.

"Then there are also a lot of other phenomena that may not be particularly obvious. For example, I see lots of patients who display physical symptoms, such as insomnia or high blood pressure. Younger people I treat also often complain of feeling ill all the time. This actually comes from stress, which affects the immune system."

Cannon also cites statistics from the Health and Safety Executive - which reveal that more than half a million people in the UK last year claimed to be suffering from depression, anxiety or stress as a result of their job - as evidence of how unduly we can be impacted by an unhappy work-life balance. "This is a clearly a societal issue," she says.

The role of employers

Mental health charity Mind believes employers have a role to play in ensuring staff aren't pushing themselves too hard. In a recent survey of more than 44,000 employees across 74 organisations as part of Workplace Wellbeing Index - which serves as a benchmark of best policy and practice when it comes to supporting staff mental health - 48% revealed having had a mental problem in their current job. Of that figure, only half said they had spoken with their employer about it.

"Many of us find it difficult to make enough time for our lives outside work, but having a good work-life balance, including regular time off, is key to staying mentally healthy," says Emma Mamo, the charity's head of workplace well-being.

"It's in employers' interests to ensure that staff are encouraged to give their personal life as much priority as their work life. We want to see employers create a culture where working overtime is the exception, not the norm, with senior staff and managers setting good examples by leaving their work at work.

"Small, inexpensive changes - such as offering flexible working hours, subsidised exercise classes and generous holiday allowances - can all make a huge difference to employees."

These are changes that might well have benefited Daniels, who says she had a boss "who perceived sickness to be a sign of weakness" - hence her moment of drastic contemplation on that Monday morning. "That felt like the only viable excuse for calling in sick without it being my fault."

Having availed herself of telephone counselling, part of an employee assistance offer, and visiting her GP - who immediately diagnosed burnout - Daniels says she soon came to the realisation that "I was in a job that was never going to get better".

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How to avoid workplace stress

It's a common feeling amongst the overworked, says Cannon, although one that can leave us feeling even more helpless.

"When people have a problem, they often look directly at its cause as a way of solving it," she says. "But when it comes to job stress and workload, most of us are actually powerless to change the situation we're in, as it's difficult to change jobs."

But that doesn't mean escaping the workplace at a sensible time need pose a Sisyphean task. Making changes to our routine outside of the office can also help, says Cannon, who recommends building up resilience for "protecting personal aspects of our life" in order to cope with stress.

"For example, making sure your sleep is as optimal as it can be is really important," she says. "Your journey to work can make a big difference as well. If you spend an hour commuting to a stressful job, on a horrific train, you are arriving at your desk already with heightened blood pressure and pulse rate. If you can leave a little earlier to avoid rush hour, or perhaps listen to a mindfulness podcast, it can mean a better start to the day."

Having strong interpersonal relationships - both within the office environment and outside it - can also provide a strong bulwark in mitigating stress levels.

"These relationships are crucial," says Cannon. "We know from studies of stress at work that focusing on building your relationships at work, whether with colleagues or mentors, or manager, can be really beneficial.

"But, sadly, when we're overworking, they can fall by the wayside. Outside of work, we can be too tired to even phone friends for a quick chat, which can create feelings of loneliness."

Making the change

As Cannon says, changing jobs is no mean feat for people who feel they are left with no alternative, but Daniels did just that five months ago, and hasn't looked back.

"In terms of career progression, I'd call it a sideways move - it carries, more or less, the same level of responsibility as my last job," she says.

"But that's OK. And I'm now working for an organisation with a completely different culture. It has a healthy work-life balance set from the very top, which has made a huge difference. I have more time at the end of each day, which I've used to do more exercise. I'm now also able to better spot the signs of stress."

Daniels' story - of someone who realised she was working too hard and decided to do something about it - serves as a source of comfort. But for many workers, up and down this country, the workplace remains a vacuum of self-perpetuating stress and anxiety.

And while the TUC continues its calls for a four-day working week as a solution to reducing stress and increasing productivity, the trend of free overtime is in danger of becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Diligence is one thing, but it should never come at the expense of our health.

*Names have been changed

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The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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