Time and time again, I’ve attempted to turn off my phone and shut down my emails. I’m part of an overwork culture; a New York society refusing to sleep. Our productivity obsession has led to the millennium phenomenon, burnout.
According to The World Health Organization, burnout is a ‘chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’ WHO characterise its key symptoms as ‘feelings of exhaustion’, ‘feelings of negativism or cynicism’ towards work and ‘reduced professional efficacy.’
Employment Studies put together a report which found the ‘proportion of UK employees working long hours’ has increased over the last decade. Survey results show these additional hours have impacted stress levels and mental health. There is now pressure on companies to better manage employee well-being. This week, the dating app Bumble closed its offices to let 700 staff take a paid week off to recover from burnout. Could this be the solution?
Why we still glorify overwork
I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m on a date, I feel a need to describe my busyness. It sounds better to list numerous assignments than simply state a couple of tasks followed by leisure. A BBC article notes how overwork has become a ‘status symbol’. We’ve romanticised the notion – working beyond a 9-5 supposedly proves more determination. We often assume working longer hours will generate a higher income and a nicer lifestyle. You merely have to glance at social media to notice the many side hustle projects and influencers carrying their laptops as they lounge on a beach.
One of the most well-known billionaires, Elon Musk, is said to work 120 hours a week. Various celebrities like Kris Jenner and Anna Wintour have confidently admitted to waking up around 5am to begin a workout and start their day productive. In addition to celebrating overwork, there is job insecurity and pressure surrounding career promotions. Employees can feel the need to put in more hours and work extra overtime to match their team’s habits.
I once worked in an office where nobody left at 5. It was considered lazy to leave without at least sending off further emails and discussing the next morning meeting. In my contract, I had agreed to work unpaid overtime. Much of this revolved around out-of-office client meetings where I felt trapped. How could I leave at a decent hour when I’m on a table with my boss and someone we’re trying to sell too?
Despite people linking time off with laziness, studies prove longer hours don’t equate to achieving more. On our blog post: Keeping Busy to Avoid Feelings, we discussed the consequences of being too busy. There can be health problems such as an increased risk of heart disease.
Unfortunately, Covid 19 seems to have fuelled our overwork culture. Publication HR News, published survey results revealing ‘almost half of UK workers’ experienced some symptoms of burnout during the pandemic but only 20% ‘took time off work’. Some workers in the study said they would have felt ‘guilty taking time off during the pandemic’.
HR News further noted that 26% of workers felt the “pressures of ‘always on’ working” – some believe their companies favour those who take minimal time off. If employees feel stressed, overworked and yet insecure about confronting their mental health issues, perhaps Bumble’s paid week off is the perfect solution.
How much does time off impact stress?
Science Daily revealed research showing a quarter of American workers feel the benefits of taking time away from work disappear as soon as they return. While holidays can create a rewarding break from stress, they equally can act as a temporary plaster. How much does time off really impact burnout?
For starters, some people have burnout to begin with because they struggle to destress. Who’s to say that employees will spend their leisure time effectively? If you feel overwhelmed, it’s easy to get caught up panicking about your job even when you’re not at the office. Secondly, how much does everyone benefit from a blanket approach? As a Forbes article says, ‘one size doesn’t fit all.’ Instead, they recommend preventative measures. For instance, they advise employers to encourage their employees to use their leave entitlement, as well as ensuring good employee benefits and manageable workloads.
With that being said, providing paid stress leave as Bumble have done, will help to destigmatise mental health. By specifically mentioning that their employee allocated week off supports stress relief, they show that emotional well-being matters. This can help people dealing with mental health who don’t want to be isolated as individuals who need additional time off.
With so much research and media attention focusing on mental health, companies can no longer ignore issues like burnout and stress. Covid 19 has adapted our working conditions and made some workers want to prioritise other factors: Health, family, wellness. Rather than selecting when employees can take paid stress leave, perhaps businesses should analyse their work culture and put in place preventative measures. Which may include stress leave for some employees.