The growing problem of work separation anxiety

While it’s stated full-time working hours in the UK should be around 38-40 hours per week, today’s hyperconnected world means it’s easier than ever to be ‘on the clock’ outside this timeframe. Constant access to emails and the corresponding ‘telepressure’ to respond quickly to customers and colleagues means the line between ‘work time’ and ‘me time’ is blurred. This has led to the coining of a new term for the rising epidemic of stress linked to this need to be connected to work. It’s called work separation anxiety.

The rise in work separation anxiety is triggered by an increasingly ‘always on’ work culture. Many employees struggle to ever truly shut off from work, with thoughts and worries about their job always present, even when they’re away from the office. It can mean working evenings and weekends and even doing work tasks during annual leave or when off sick. In some cases, it can mean the opposite, when strained and stressed employees struggle on, without using earned annual leave or taking sick days.In some of the worst cases, the inability to disconnect and relax outside of work can lead to burnout- now recognised as a medical diagnosis by the World Health Organisation.

 

A growing problem

The growing incidence of work separation anxiety is likely due to the changing expectations placed on modern workers. A rise in work laptops and mobile phones with internet access means it can be difficult to step away from work. Employees may receive hundreds of emails a day, but often they feel the need to respond immediately. Researchers have found this email overload can result in physical and mental burnout, resulting in more health-related absences from work.

Problems like overwork, burnout and work separation anxiety can be insidious, creeping up without warning

Alongside technological advances, factors like demanding deadlines, an unmanageable workload or a company culture which may not encourage taking time off can also drive symptoms of work separation anxiety. It’s time responsible businesses took note, especially as The European Court of Justice has just ruled employers must take steps to make sure their staff are not exceeding a 48 hour work week.

Problems like overwork, burnout and work separation anxiety can be insidious, creeping up without warning. Employees may not realise they’re suffering, so managers and those in charge of workplace wellbeing should receive the right training to spot the signs and offer support when required. Common signs stem from employees struggling to maintain a healthy work-life balance and becoming stressed when they do not have complete control or ownership of a project. They may also cancel annual leave last-minute – claiming they have too much on to take holiday –  work from home late at night or insist on coming into work when unwell.

Ironically, this behaviour is often because they think it helps them avoid feeling stressed out about work. But energy is a finite resource and spending too much time at work is counter-productive, as it can result in us ignoring our personal development, our health and actually end up decreasing our productivity by at least a third. Physical signs to watch out for include employees experiencing heart palpitations, shortness of breath, headaches, tiredness and dizziness. You might notice heightened emotions in the workplace and hear poor feedback from their colleagues, customers or clients.

The culture of overworking can be contagious, which means this growing problem can spread through teams and even an entire organisation. Anxious emotions like fear have been found to spread from person to person according to research by the University of Calgary. Pay attention to reactions when employees take annual leave. If worry and concern are spreading across the office, this is a sign the workplace culture needs to change.

 

Next steps

To provide employees with the right support at the right time, it’s crucial to regularly evaluate your work environment. Are those in leadership positions leaving on time and taking their lunch breaks? It’s crucial a positive work-life balance is modelled from the top, so employees see overworking is not the key to success.

Next, combine objective measures like sickness absence rates with feedback from one-on-ones and satisfaction surveys to gain a picture of overall employee wellbeing. You can use this information to assign managers on training courses which address overworking, so they will spot the signs and triggers of Work Separation Anxiety.

Support your organisation’s commitment to employee wellbeing by introducing external services like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs). This is a practical way to provide in-person and online help for employees who may be suffering from Work Separation Anxiety, but make sure staff are reminded these services exist through benefits communication channels.

To counter a problem within your company culture, like leavism, where employees use leave days to catch up on work, there should be an open conversation around mental health in the workplace. Consider offering emotional literacy training to help staff recognise the signs of emotional distress in themselves and others. This provides employees with a common language to discuss mental health, stress and overworking in the workplace.

 

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