Mental health and our culture of excessive work hours.

It’s nearing the end of mental health awareness week and this year it has felt that there has been a real shift change in people, particularly men, talking openly about their struggles with mental health. It’s been long overdue.

In recent weeks you may have seen Princes William and Harry talking about their mental health struggles. Rio Ferdinand’s documentary being Mum and Dad poignantly documented his grief over the loss of his wife to cancer. Alistair Campbell has talked candidly for a number of years about his struggle with depression as has Stephen Fry. The website Heads Talk is a great resource, with insightful interviews, from successful people of varying professions talking about mental health and their experiences. If you are in the creative industry I would encourage you to read Dave Birss’s recent article in the Drum about losing his mental health.

one in six adults in the UK meet the criteria for a common mental health disorder

This dialogue needs to happen. Recent estimates have shown that approximately one in six adults in the UK meet the criteria for a common mental health disorder. In a company of 30 people that’s 5 of your colleagues (maybe you yourself) juggling work, whilst struggling with their minds, probably in silence. There is a pressing need for us all to be more aware and for employers to take a lead.

If you work 11 or more hours a day you are twice as likely to suffer from major depression

The current research shows that we are not helping ourselves, particularly when it comes to stress, anxiety and depression. The UK has on average some of the longest working hours any where in Europe. If you work 11 or more hours a day you are twice as likely to suffer from major depression as those working the standard eight-hour day. Stress related illnesses accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health in the UK according to the Health and Safety Executive.

Work martrydom

I, like a lot of people in the UK worked long hours. I thought of myself as conscientious, needed, valued. Like many, these excessive hours were something to be a little proud of. I would work 10-12+ hour days, possibly take a 20 minute lunch consisting of a quick walk into town for a sandwich (or if feeling truly adventurous a sushi pack) and eat at my desk. I repeated this over the five days culminating with me washing up on the weekend like some sort of zombie, to begin the whole process again on a Monday. I would work on weekends or come into the office on days off. On occasions more numerous than I will admit (normally prior to a pitch) I’d work through the night, coming home to shower before heading to a meeting or back into the office.

Cue the violins? You’d be right. Martyrdom for the cause is great at inflating your feeling of self worth.

I missed birthdays, I stood up friends, I cancelled trips (infamously a close friends stag do to Madrid). I did so gladly with a feeling of self importance.

Looking back the tipping point came when my Grandfather ‘Pop’ passed away. Physically imposing but with the very gentlest of souls, he had wrestled for a number of years with vascular dementia, which had slowly robbed him of his memories but not his mischievous personality or courtesy. He suffered a stroke and was admitted late one evening to Brighton hospital. I attended his first night with my brother, he was a ghost of the man I remembered, frail, with a high temperature, slipping in and out of lucidness. We were told he was stable but he had maybe a few days. We were pitching for new business at work and I went in early the next day, vowing to return to the open ward in the evening. We worked late and I missed the visiting slot. Pop passed away, alone that night.

When my Mum rang me in the morning to tell me, I cried at my desk – to the unfortunate consternation of our brand new technical director – before taking myself to the boardroom. I cried not so much because of his passing, but because I could never take it back. I couldn’t apologise to him for this. No belated birthday card, no bouquet of flowers, no round of drinks would make this up.

To paraphrase a film; there are some hurts that go too deep, they take a hold. There was a finality to this that weighed heavy. In truth for a few years I had been an absent grandson, son, brother friend, partner.

Excessive hours consistently for extended periods is a law of diminishing returns.

What I had failed to appreciate, was the toll these long hours had taken on myself and the detrimental effect it was having on family, friends, colleagues. Ultimately on clients work. Excessive hours consistently for extended periods is a law of diminishing returns.

Longer hours doesn’t mean more productivity

The funny thing is we KNOW that it’s not good to work consistently long hours, not just for our own mental well being but for productivity.

Research that attempts to quantify the relationship between hours worked and productivity by Stanford University, found that employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour work-week, and falls off a cliff after 55 hours – if you’re doing 70 hours plus you’re producing nothing more in those 15 hours. According to recent statistics on a national level we work longer hours than almost anywhere in Europe yet it takes a UK worker on average 5 days to produce what it takes a German worker to do in 4.

Still the culture persists. It’s insidious, pervading and takes effort to counter. Longer hours doesn’t mean more productivity.

employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour work-week, and falls off a cliff after 55 hours

Burning out

In the end I burned out. I had a feeling of omnipresent dread, felt acutely Sunday evenings. Sometimes it was so overwhelming I didn’t want to get up in the mornings. I treated emails from certain colleagues and clients with the trepidation of a bomb disposal expert. My humour darkened with my mood. I was given an Eeyore as my desk mascot and joked he was my spirit animal. I had thoughts about twisting my steering wheel and ploughing into the central reservation or a tree, save for how awful I would feel for anyone else affected. I would sleep through a weekend, or go to bed as soon as I stepped through the door. It felt exhausting just to talk about. I would repeat like a mantra “you’ve just got to sort yourself out”, catching myself saying it aloud when alone.  I felt put upon constantly and what had once seemed so easily manageable now felt like a rising flood. Self depreciations began to ring true in my head, I really was rubbish at everything, so it felt.

At the end I asked for help but not the right help. It came in the form of delegation and some time away – I had a full years worth of holiday to use plus time in lieu, (a badge of honour for any self respecting work martyr).

As I flew half way round the globe the infamous black dog stayed put. He wasn’t gone though, just patiently waiting tied to a lamp post at Heathrow Terminal 5. He sent me reminders in the forms of emails or calls from quizzical colleagues.

mental health issues aren’t rational

There aren’t the provisions or understanding at many work places to help staff who are suffering. Friends, colleagues, family would offer well meaning rational advice; “you need to delegate more”, “go for a run”, “eat healthier”. But mental health issues aren’t rational. It was like being stuck at the bottom of a well and having someone throw you a rope to climb out that only reaches half way. I can understand, I have been on the other side myself, I had watched colleagues suffer in the past under the crippling weight of expectations, empathetic but not completely understanding. If you are picking up the slack or being directly negatively impacted yourself, then that empathy can quickly erode.

I carried on for some months on my return, still struggling, until ironically that car crash I had thought about happened. It wasn’t a tree or the central reservation but another vehicle turning across me at a junction on my way to work. Luckily no one was injured. The crash did give me some perspective, it could have been a lot, lot worse. 10 days later I had left.

It hurt to leave somewhere I had dedicated such a large portion of my life. Ultimately all those additional unpaid hours don’t amount to much. That’s the point, I can’t tell you what new business pitch I was working on the night my Pop passed, but I can tell you the regret I feel for not being there. Leaving in the end was a relief.

Employers need to step up

Employers need to take a lead if not for the sake of their staff then for their own productivity. In my own creative industry, great ideas are born out of inspiration; art, movies, books etc. Beyond the productivity argument, if your staff don’t have the opportunity or time to absorb these then that creativity stagnates.

There are practical steps employers can take beyond putting policy in place; making free confidential counselling available, redirecting emails when staff are on holiday, ensuring staff leave on time and take lunch breaks. Creating a culture where working long hours isn’t some badge of honour.

Think carefully about the implication of emails

There is also personal responsibility, particular with senior staff. You set the pace, if your staff are seeing you consistently sat at your desk late most nights, then that creates an obligation for them to do the same. Think carefully about the implication of emails; is it really necessary to be emailing colleagues at 10pm or worse the weekends? Save a draft or schedule it for the morning. I’d argue for most people email is not their job, if you are filling colleagues inboxes with internal emails then that’s creating an issue, go talk to them, skype or use a tool like slack.

The bottom line is; if staff are working consistently excessive hours yourself included, then there’s a problem, either with expectation, resourcing, competency or a combination of all three.

My state of mind

Since leaving and forming Inter Vivos I am acutely more aware of my own mood and creating a better balance. Exercise, particularly running I find helps massively, not just with keeping negative thoughts at bay but in my creative thinking. What I feel stuck on prior to setting out, I have often worked out by the time I have finished. Setting short term achievable tasks also helps and not just work ones; take the bins out, do that DIY job you’ve been putting off. That cloud that hung over me for such a long period has slowly dissipated.

It took me a few months to decompress totally but with time I slowly came to recognise myself again. My creativity has come back and things come easily once again, there isn’t that crippling self doubt or periods of mental inertia. I now know that I have it within me to go back to that state of mind and being vigilant is my best defence.

As for Eeyore, he’s been adopted and found a new home, he spends his days sunning himself on a small island in the Mediterranean. Peace in mind and happiness comes in many forms, it needn’t be fleeting and should never feel unobtainable, here is a little of ours:

Eeyore being pushed on a bike
Inter Vivos skiing on a sunshine mountain

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