Can You Work Yourself To Death?

Cartoon grim reaper looking at cartoon woman sat behind desk

Alarming new research has shown that 745,000 people died in 2016 from stroke and heart disease due to long working hours.  The study, conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation, found that a working week of 55 hours or more (or 11-hour days) was associated with a 35 per cent higher risk of stroke and a 17 per cent higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared with a working week of 35 to 40 hours.

The study also found almost three-quarters of those that died as a result of working long hours were middle-aged or older men.  Men like Jonathan Frostick, a Regulatory Programme Manager at HSBC, who suffered a heart attack in April and composed a LinkedIn post that immediately went viral.  Stating that “on the basis I don’t die” he vowed in future:

  • “I’m not spending all day on zoom anymore
  • I’m restructuring my approach to work
  • I’m really not going to be putting up with any s#%t at work ever again – life literally is too short
  • I’m losing 15kg
  • I want every day to count for something at work else I’m changing my role
  • I want to spend more time with my family”

He ended his post with “And that, so far, is what near death has taught me.”

Mr Frostick’s story follows complaints in March by first year bankers at Goldman Sachs who found that they averaged a 95-hour work week.  The bankers detailed their experiences in a report, with one writing:

“There was a point where I was not eating, showering or doing anything else other than working from morning until after midnight.”

Prolonged working hours and workplace stress have long been known to harm people’s health.  It does not take a genius to conclude that if a person is spending 11 hours a day at their desk, (plus commuting in non-Covid times), something has to give.  And that something tends to be things that keep us healthy such as sleep, cooked-from-scratch meals, exercise, and time with family and friends.

Do employers have a responsibility to deal with workplace stress?

All employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress.  To comply with this duty, employer’s must conduct a stress at work risk assessment and act upon its findings.  The Coronavirus pandemic which has resulted in a huge increase in homeworking has presented employers with a new challenge – how to ensure employees can separate home and work life.  Many large companies have taken positive action to tackle the danger of working from home becoming ‘working all the time’ – HSBC is piloting Zoom-free Friday afternoons, Citygroups has gone one step further and banned Friday Zoom calls altogether.  And accounting giant, KPMG has told all its 16,000 staff that they can leave work early one day a week.

How can I tell if an employee is suffering from stress?

Despite the drive towards removing the stigma surrounding mental health challenges, most employees, especially those in professional roles, loathe admitting that they are struggling to cope with the demands placed on them.  Instead, a person suffering from stress usually battles on, sometimes relying on stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol to alleviate the pressure.  Unfortunately, the human mind and body will eventually implode if it is subjected to unrelenting stress, long work hours and all the unhealthy habits sitting in front of a screen all day brings, leading to employees making critical mistakes, becoming unproductive, and/or suffering serious physical and mental health issues such as heart disease, stroke, anxiety, depression, and burnout.

Common signs an employee is suffering from stress include:

  • Apathy, cynicism, and/or negativity regarding their work.
  • Constant fatigue.
  • Regular loss of emotional control, for example, losing their temper, being overly sensitive, or crying.
  • Headaches and insomnia.
  • Substance and/or alcohol abuse
  • Obvious weight gain or loss.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Suddenly making mistakes or being unable to meet deadlines when this was never a problem in the past.
  • Withdrawing from colleagues and isolating themselves at work.

Although employers have a right to expect their staff to be able to cope with normal workplace pressures, once you identify that an employee is suffering from stress, you must act or else risk them bringing a claim in the Employment Tribunal.  Take steps to identify the source of the stress and, in consultation with the employee, put together a plan to alleviate the problem.  This could take the form of reducing work hours and responsibility, allowing for some time off, or if the stress is caused by a conflict with a particular colleague, organising mediation to resolve the dispute.

Final words

An employer’s duty concerning stress not only includes managing identified cases but also ensuring stress does not become endemic within the workplace.  Take steps to champion mental health and make clear to employees that speaking to their line manager about feeling overwhelmed will only result in positive action.  It is also important that line managers are trained to spot the signs of stress and have the skills to deal with it sensitively and positively.  And when it comes to workplace bullying, make it clear that your organisation takes a zero-tolerance approach.

Finally, set an example by taking care of yourself.  Although employers have a duty to manage workplace stress on behalf of their employees, long hours and high pressure will ultimately take a toll on you too.  By inspiring your staff through your actions and demonstrating that you do not have to work long hours to achieve great results, you will reduce the risk of stress-related Employment Tribunal claims.

So go on…take an afternoon off this week.

Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” – Dolly Parton: