You Are Not Your Job: The Problem of Toxic Work (and What to Do about It)

FT Contributor  | 

A recent assessment from City University of London determined that overworking not only damages employees’ well-being but often also does nothing to improve their standing or prospects at work. Furthermore, while it was found that both overtime work and high-intensity work negatively affected the well-being of employees, the latter appeared to cause more damage.

In many cultures, the general consensus is that the harder one works, the better. People often feel pressured to abide by that standard. Keeping that in mind, remember that trying to shoulder an unrealistic workload is unhealthy and unproductive. Further, your job does not define your worth.

The Elusive Work-Life Balance

In some ways, the phrase “work-life balance” is misleading; a better expression might be “work-life separation.” Having a healthy work-life balance means that one can keep both largely compartmentalized. When you leave work, all work-related tasks and worries should be set aside until it is time to clock in again.

One of the downsides of living in an ever-connected society is that it can facilitate an employer’s ability to contact employees outside of work, and they may encourage employees to stay “on-call.” The stress of being on-call may actually be observable as a drop in employees’ overall cortisol levels.

In the vein of remote communication, working from home is also an increasingly common arrangement. Working from home does not automatically sentence a person to a completely entangled home and work life; it just requires being more mindful of when it is time to put work out of sight and out of mind.

There is a reason that there are laws in many countries regarding how many hours a week a person can work without additional compensation and how many break hours an employee is entitled to: Denying someone the ability to properly rest and recharge is inhumane. In fact, several European countries are debating proposed laws that would require many employers to negotiate their ability to contact employees outside work and then establish those limits in the employment contract. 

Nevertheless, many workers still feel pressured into doing extracurricular work as a result of expectations from their job or from society. These expectations are unhealthy and unfounded. In fact, burdening employees with too much work actually negatively impacts business productivity.

More Work Does Not Equal More Productivity

Productive output relative to work input may be subject to the law of diminishing returns.  According to findings published by John Pencavel, a professor of economics at Stanford University, there is a cap on working hours, and the average productive output drops when this is surpassed. This varies depending on the business and the type of work, but generally speaking, this ceiling is at about 50 hours per week.

In addition, overworking employees could contribute to higher employee turnover rates. An overworked employee will likely leap at the chance for a similar job that isn’t as physically and/or mentally strenuous. In fact, a study of Iranian nurses demonstrated a positive correlation between levels of job stress and hospital turnover rate.

Workplace Stress Is a $300 Billion Per Year Problem

The American Institute of Stress found that 46% of people surveyed reported that their primary source of work-related stress was their workload. The same report commented:

“In New York, Los Angeles and other municipalities, the relationship between job stress and heart attacks is so well acknowledged, that any police officer who suffers a coronary event on or off the job is assumed to have a work-related injury and is compensated accordingly.”

Job stress in the U.S. is estimated to cost $300 billion annually. Some major contributors to this bill are turnover, absenteeism, reduced productivity, and accidents.

What to Do About It

This sounds like all problems and no solutions, but we can make positive changes. Although one person can’t personally change cultural norms, there are some effective measures one can employ to reduce work-related stress and keep a healthy distance between work and home:

  • Be assertive and set boundaries at work.
  • Put your phone on “Do Not Disturb” at scheduled times.
  • Be mentally present at home and during leisure activities.
  • Create a work network. Work friends can not only commiserate but also assist in approaching a manager about issues in the workplace.
  • Encourage co-worker friends not to talk about the job outside of work.
  • At the end of your workday, tell yourself that you have done all of the work that is healthy and reasonable. Be forgiving to yourself.
  • Be mindful of your feelings. If you are becoming too stressed, take a step back.
  • Give yourself breaks. Even five minutes of downtime is helpful.
  • Don’t budget based on maximizing productivity. Budget for a baseline level of productivity so that working extra does not feel like an imperative.
  • Get involved in non-work-related activities.
  • Manage existing anxiety issues at work in a healthy way

Image Source: Deposit Photos

This post was updated September 25, 2019. It was originally published September 26, 2019.