Are we all working too hard?

Is there a culture of spending too long at our desks, and will it hurt our health?
07 November 2017

Interview with 

Courtney Landers, University of Cambridge


Worker bees


We’ve looked at the ways our health is impacted by our physical and our social environment in the workplace, but what if it's simply the time we spend at work that has the biggest impact? Chris Smith heard from Courtney Landers, a mental health researcher interested in the impact of work on our mental health, about how work is affecting our stress levels.

Courtney - More than you’d think. It was really interesting you mentioned gut bacteria before because there’s lots of studies coming out now that indicate that the chemicals that your gut bacteria produce can really affect your mental health. What people don't consider, I think, is that things like stress, diet, exercise all affect your gut bacteria. And so, of course, if you’re working too hard and you’re not looking after yourself, your gut bacteria will be affected and, thus, perhaps your mental health will be affected.

Chris - The other thing that’s changed in the workplace in the last 50 years is a dramatic reduction in the number of jobs which are physical. The number of people doing a physical has dropped from something like 50% down to about 5%. The number of people doing a sedentary role has gone from about 5% to 50%. Do you think that also is playing a role because people are less active, and activity also improves wellbeing? Do you think that could be part of the reason why people might be unhealthy?

Courtney - Absolutely! I think it’s a combination. You’ve seen the rise of people working longer hours in the interest of efficiency perhaps, or productivity - trying to get more done. Because lots of jobs are desk based these days it means that people are spending more time at their desk. Whereas I think before, perhaps, people would work nine to five and then go home and play with their families, go out, do other things. And I think it’s probably that factor, not so much what you’re doing at work, but how long you send and work and what you do afterwards.

Chris - Is there evidence that the problem is getting worse because we are working longer hours on average now than we did historically and that’s largely driven digitally, isn’t it?  Because, historically your inbox filled up at the rate the postman could pedal his bicycle. Nowadays your inbox fills up at the rate a computer can feed you more to do and so you could get this sense of an overwhelming workload that never ends.

Courtney - Yes. I think there was a 2014 study in Australia just recently, and they were looking at work/life balance and, historically, Australia's got one of the best work/life balances.

Chris - It certainly agreed with me when I lived in Sidney. It was fantastic.

Courtney - Yes but over the last five years of this study, they’ve found that 45% of people’s work/life balance had got worse rather than better. So, for some reason, even though it’s this Nirvana, this lovely sunshine country, people, for some reason, were just working more and enjoying themselves less.

Chris - What about this idea because there’s this saying that if you do a job you love, you’ll never do a day’s work in your life - does that hold? So if you take people that really love their job and are workaholics because they are really into it, do they still suffer the same ill effect of long hours as people who don’t have that control?

Courtney - I think it’s a dangerous way to think because it doesn’t really matter how much you love what you’re doing, you still need to sleep, you still need to eat. After a certain number of hours doing these things that you love, eventually everybody needs to take a break.So unless you’re looking after the physical machinery of your body, eventually the mental machinery will breakdown no matter how much you’re enjoying it in the first place.

Chris - What appears to be the duration of work which is most consistent with good health?

Courtney - The interesting thing is that in the age of automation and the iphone, we really haven't looked at how much this is affecting us. There was a study, I think, by the University of Melbourne last year that looked at over 40s, I think, and they established that after about working 30 hours a week, which is 6 hours a day over a five day week, people’s productivity vastly reduced so, essentially, people were already working too hard above the age of 40. And, of course, most people start to work at a very early age these days, but there’s no data for the younger generation at all.

Chris - So something we should probably look into isn’t it.

Georgia - Mindfulness has been one popular method of unwiding from work. If you have not yet tried this then listen up; we asked yoga instructor Sanjay James from CAMYOGA in Cambridge to make us more mindful.

Sanjay - Bring your attention to the physical sensation of breathing. The air moving through your nose, the rising and falling of your belly. Notice when your mind wanders from your breath. When you notice your mind wandering gently return your attention to the breath. Just keep repeating to yourself and breathing in, and breathing in, and breathing in.

Then hold your breath for a little moment and repeat in your mind I’m holding my breath, I’m holding my breath, I’m holding my breath. And then very slowly breath out through your nose and repeat in your mind I’m breathing out, I’m breathing out, I’m breathing out and just stay in this rhythm.

Instead of wrestling with your thoughts practice observing them without reacting to them, Just sit and pay attention.

Georgia - Mindfulness is a bit of buzz word at the moment so Babara, I was wondering, does it actually work? Is there any science behind this - is it a good idea to unwind?

Barbara - Yes, there is evidence based behind it and there is studies showing that it does help and I think it’s particularly good. There are other techniques: exercise, yoga, things that you can use, but some people find it difficult to clear their minds and actually be in the moment and mindfulness helps you do that.

You heard from that little clip that basically you have to focus in on your breathing and when your mind wanders away come back to that again. So it keeps you from thinking about all these other things that distract us during the day and make it difficult to relax and unwind and really have that beneficial effect of wellbeing.

Georgia - So is this “being in the moment” idea, is that beneficial for our actual mental health?

Barbara - It is a good idea to be in the moment because many people miss out on things. They don’t realise they’re missing out on things because they’re not actually focussing on what’s going on at the moment with them. You’ve probably been at restaurants where you see everybody looking at their phones instead of talking to each other, and really enjoying the dinner and talking to their friends, so everybody’s checking their phones. So you lose out on the enjoyment and the well being that you can get from that experience.


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