We all have those dreams of ditching the daily grind and running off to a tropical island while a magical bank account generates us millions. But the experts have other news - the evidence shows that most of us are better off mentally and physically when we're employed and that striking the right balance of work, rest and play in a supportive workplace is the best bet.
But that can be easier said than done. Anyone who has endured a nightmare job will know the dread that creeps in on Sunday afternoon as you prepare for another week, the walking on eggshells around a difficult boss, or the exhausting expectation to regularly stay late. Regardless of whether your stress is due to an insurmountable workload, an uneasy office vibe or a manager that specialises in put-downs, it's a situation that can eat away at your confidence and self-esteem, and become demoralising.
We all know about the huge mental and physical toll caused by ongoing stress. In the broader scheme of things, toxic environments can also lead to low productivity, unsafe conditions and costly staff turnover. It doesn't take a scientist to tell you that happier workplaces are better for bosses, workers and business in general, so how do you look after your own workplace wellbeing?
Toxic environments can also lead to low productivity
Good, bad and the ugly
As much as the 'every day spent on the sun lounger' scenario sounds tempting, academics and medical experts are unanimous: work is mostly good for us. Having a job helps us to feel socially included, it can reinforce our sense of self, and it gives us a sense of purpose. In a report from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, researchers found going to work generally reduces psychological distress, while long-term periods of unemployment almost always have a negative effect on our wellbeing.
The report found unemployment was associated with everything from higher rates of cardiovascular disease and respiratory infections to increased rates of hospital admissions, and the negative impact it can have on our mental health is well-documented. But that's not to say that work is a magic bullet for helping to keep us healthy and happy.
A 2017 study by the University of Manchester reviewed data from 1200 employees across different industries and countries, and found those dealing with a toxic manager were not only more likely to show signs of depression, but could also be more likely to engage in bullying themselves, with instances of negative workplace behaviours higher overall when a bad boss was in charge.
An earlier study from Binghamton University in New York identified two types of managers that can cause the most trouble at work, those who fit the criteria for 'dark' and those who fall under the category of 'dysfunctional'. Dark bosses were those who displayed narcissistic or psychopathic traits, while the dysfunctional types were simply bad at their job, where micromanaging was a key aspect of their leadership style.
Extensive research is being carried out by Australia's Black Dog Institute into the role that work may have in precipitating or preventing mental illness. According to the institute, mental illness is now the leading cause of sickness absence and long-term work incapacity in the developed world.
A 2016 survey by recruitment firm Hays found almost a third (29%) of New Zealand companies increased their overtime and extra hours in the 12 months prior.
Could less be more?
Throughout the world, research is also underway around the benefits of having a shorter work week or cutting back the number of hours spent in the workplace each day. It's easy to see why both ideas have been popular, but there's also mounting evidence that less can be more.
A Swedish study looked at the effects of allowing nurses to work six hours a day on an eight-hour salary. The results after one year showed the nurses took roughly half the amount of sick leave, compared to what they were taking when working the standard eight-hour shifts. The study - known as the Svartedalens Experiment - also revealed that six-hour days made the staff 20 per cent happier, and 64 per cent more productive.
A study closer to home looked at the benefits of a shorter week. As part of a two-month trial earlier this year, workers in Kiwi insurance firm, Perpetual Guardian, worked for four days and were paid for five. Results from the 240 staff who took part showed 78 per cent felt like they could juggle work and life commitments more effectively with an extra day of leave (up from 54 per cent), overall life satisfaction increased, and stress levels decreased by seven per cent. Factors like commitment to work and feelings of empowerment at work also increased during the trial. The firm has since made the four-day week a permanent company policy.
Real life case studies
"I had a boss who was the worst micromanager and it was such a knock to my confidence as I was constantly second-guessing myself with the most basic tasks. I started to not sleep well, rapidly put on weight, and was catching every cold that was going around. I hung on for about two years in the role but I wish I had left sooner. I also wish I had spoken up for myself, as I now think that staying quiet and 'keeping out of the firing line' only reinforced to my boss that her behaviour was okay"
"For me, leaving my desk at lunchtime is a vital component of my work day. I try to go for a walk each day and I always come back feeling refreshed, energised and more productive. It helps a lot with stress management, and on the days where I don't get out of the office at lunch, I really notice how exhausted I feel in the afternoons."
"I used to work in an office where working overtime was the expected norm, to the point where 5pm would come and go and nobody wanted to be the first to Leave. It's easy to get caught up in herd behaviour, but I think there comes a time where you have to prioritise your health and wellbeing. You have to work in a way that is sustainable long term."
Taking a holiday can help to reduce work-related stress, prevent anxiety and depression
Mental wellbeing at work
Workplace issues can take their toll. If you start to feel like work is taking over your life or a work issue is getting you down, it's best to address it early rather than letting things get worse. Try these steps for getting the balance back:
» Limit extra working hours: Work commitments can get crazy sometimes, but when long hours become the norm rather than the exception, it can negatively impact our health. If this sounds Like you, have a chat with your manager first.
» Schedule meetings during work hours: Arranging meetings to begin and end only within core working hours will help to ensure your precious 'out-of-hours' time is protected.
» Take regular breaks: A solid bit of graft is rewarding, but being busy all the time will ultimately lead to burnout. There's more research than you can shake a stick at that says taking breaks, both physical and mental, can boost our productivity.
» Try not to take work home: Adding an extra hour or two at home to tidy up a work project can quickly become a habit, but again, think of it as the exception and not the rule. Downtime is vital for a healthy work-life balance.
» Take your holiday leave: A complete break from work has big mental and physical health benefits. Taking a holiday can help to reduce work-related stress, prevent anxiety and depression, and increase work performance and productivity.
» It's okay to say 'no': It can be difficult to say, but 'no' isn't a dirty word as far as your workload is concerned. Be genuine and state your reasons clearly In the long run, the outcome will be more positive, and you'll be in a better position to say yes the next time.
» Have a tech 'switch off' time: Resist the pressure to look at work emails outside of work hours. This can be a creeping habit in lots of workplaces - lead by example and don't let the late-night email scroll become part of your work culture.
» Make use of EAP: Many employers offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to help employees with personal and work-related issues that may impact their job performance, health, mental and emotional wellbeing.
» Explore flexible working arrangements where possible: Making work fit better into your day-to-day life can help to improve your general wellbeing. Work closely and negotiate with your employer - you will need to be able to do your job in an effective manner that works for both of you.
For more information and resources on managing your mental health, see lifeline.org.nz (or call 0800 543354) or wellplace.nz.
This article was created in collaboration with Good Health & Wellbeing