In the 1987 film Wall Street, Gordon Gekko declared that lunch was for wimps.
Fortunately, the idea that working without a break was the only way to succeed is as dated as Gekko’s striped braces. Today, we realise working better – not longer – is important.
However, it is still easy to be overwhelmed by work. Deadlines can mean working long hours, encroaching on your home life. Before you know it, you could be teetering on the edge of a mental health crisis. Poor mental health can be anything from feeling a bit down to having a mental breakdown. But how do you spot the warning signs before they get worse? And what techniques can you use to ensure you keep a balance between your home life and work?
Asking for help
Emma Mamo, head of workplace well-being at charity Mind said: “Around one in four of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year – such as depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia – and may need extra support at work. Mental health problems can have a wide range of causes and symptoms of vary from person to person, but in general, if you’ve not been feeling your normal self for more than a couple of weeks it’s worth seeking support”.
Don’t think ignoring your problems is good for you –or your employer.
Dr Rosanna Cousins, Associate Professor of Health Psychology at Liverpool Hope University points out: “You have a responsibility to yourself and to your employer to make sure work isn’t overwhelming you to such an extent that you let standards slip. You need to be realistic as to what you can and can’t do before you start. This means: ‘do I have sufficient time for this work?’, and ‘do I have sufficient competence for this work?’
“If you feel overwhelmed, then it’s important that you let your employer know as soon as possible: they have a duty of care and asking for help is not a sign of weakness. They should appreciate it is better to be pre-emptive if your work is going to take a little longer, and provide support if necessary.”
Knowing the signs
Christine Husbands, managing director of RedArc Nurses, which offers nursing services for companies, says there are three main pointers that suggest someone is suffering from mental health problems:
- Acting out of character such as being withdrawn, tearful, distracted or having difficulty concentrating;
- Sudden or increasingly poor performance in the role;
- Arriving late or taking frequent days off.
Other signs, says Katharine Moxham, spokesman for GRiD, the trade body for the group risk industry, include increasing use of alcohol, drugs, caffeine and tobacco as well frequent headaches and backaches. She says that employers can help by “creating an environment where it’s safe to talk about mental health: after all, the best person to say what could help is generally the person who is affected.
“Being flexible can be key: our latest research found a third of employers use flexible working initiatives to manage absence and improve attendance. This approach can be particularly useful for helping people manage their mental health conditions – for example, being allowed to work from home on days when they are struggling”.
Getting the balance right
It might be against your nature to take breaks or not working from home in the evening. But actually, you could work better – as well as preserving you mental health – by not always working.
Victoria Sharp is the managing director of Avanti Group, a Suffolk-based accountancy and tax advice firm. She is a self-proclaimed workaholic – but she knows how to balance her work life and interests. “I do work long hours – but I absolutely love what I do” she said. “So I might start work at 5am and still be working at 11pm. But the great thing about running your own firm is that you can find the time to fit in other interests”.
For Victoria, those interests include Karate – she’s a 1st Dan black belt. She’s also competed – and won – a boxing match. Away from sport, she also likes walking her dogs, baking and creative writing. Victoria says that her sporting activities don’t only keep her physically well, but allow her to switch off from work. “I am 100% sure that exercise helps with my work-life balance – and ensures I have good mental health too. You have to make time to get away from work – you owe it to yourself. It’s all part of keeping a balance.”
Catherine Littler, a trainer and consultant for AAT and expert on mindful learning, says that slumping in front of the television isn’t the answer to getting a good work-life balance.
“I am an advocate of active resting” says Catherine. “For example, I am learning to play the piano: you need something which will exercise your mind or body but is not related to work.”
In addition, Catherine and her husband also make sure they go for a walk every morning before starting work and often at lunchtimes too. They also climb mountains and go walking in holidays – one of the attractions being that there’s no phone reception so no calls from work.
“You need to be able to switch off from work” she says. “Not being at work means not working. You shouldn’t get work emails on your own phone – and if you’ve a work mobile, then you should turn it off when you are not working. If you work in an office, don’t take work home with you.”
Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.