In our weekly spot on the site where we chat about mental health and wellbeing, a few thoughts about working too hard.

Hello, and welcome to our weekly spot for a look at the stuff that might be bothering us, or we want to get off our chest. This week, we’re thinking about presenteeism.

What do we mean by presenteeism? Various dictionary definitions break it down in broadly two ways, defining it as:

  1. the practice of coming to work despite illness, injury or anxiety
  2. the practice of working long hours at a job beyond your contracted hours

We might moan and groan about work, but deep inside, we are also very scared of losing it in a world where unemployment has skyrocketed, and the pandemic makes it very difficult to look for new employment. Everything is insecure. And incomes are being hammered.

This isn’t a new phenomena. There’s a very real fear of going on sick leave, and how it may leave us open to be targeted for censure by employers. Workloads are huge, and often there is no one to cover if we are sick. You know in the back of your mind that work is accumulating on your desk, untouched, waiting until your return. You might wake up and feel like death on a plate, but not going to work is unthinkable.

I’ve been there. I contracted norovirus on a deadline week, where there were multiple assessment reports pending that only I could complete. I was expelling furiously at both ends, and my workplace had a norovirus protocol: do not come to work. I rang in sick.

And got an earful from my manager. When would I be back? How did I think my work would get done? Was I really sick? I spent the rest of the day alternating between puking and crying, feeling like the most useless human on the planet. And then – against work protocols – I dragged myself in the next day to complete the reports.

Worst thing I could have done.

For starters, I infected at least two other people, who ended up on the sick. My manager, who was heavily under the cosh themselves, continued piling pressure on me. I had to keep running out of the office. I was in excruciating pain, and in a job where I had to make judgement calls on complicated information.

I broke. Really broke, when another batch of files was dumped on my desk. I put my head on my arms and sobbed. Another manager saw this, and took me out of the office to make sure I was okay. My own manager accused me of bad mouthing them. And a very vicious cycle began.

This is just one example of presenteeism. My guilt and sense of responsibility drove me to my desk when I should have been in bed. It had nothing but negative repercussions. That deadline could have been, should have been negotiated.

If you look at your own working life, you’ll probably have had similar experiences. It must be even worse if you are on a short term or zero hours contract, where an employer holds all the cards. It’s difficult, when you find yourself in this position, to make the decision that is perhaps in your best interests. I didn’t, and the repercussions lasted years (a discussion for another day!).

Add Covid-19 to this mix, and it gets even more toxic. It seems that having invited work into our living rooms, many of us are finding it difficult to turn away or turn it off. People are working long beyond their contracted hours, worried that they don’t look productive or committed enough. Granted, for those of us blessed to be able to work from home at the moment, there is no commuting time. But we don’t owe that time to our employers.

And if you work in retail or the gig economy and are diagnosed with Covid-19? What happens then? The British public’s compliance with lockdown regulations has been good, with one exception. Self-isolation after a positive test. And this isn’t due to selfishness. It’s due to necessity. People are going to work out of fear of loss of income or employment. Financial support is out there from the Department for Work and Pensions in the form of Employment and Support Allowance, but it is limited and takes a long time to come through.

We’re caught in a trap. A two week break in income is huge. A few days loss could cause serious financial hardship. But I would posit that our physical and mental health is also important. Presenteeism broke mine. It did far more harm than good in the longer term, for a report that could have been delayed for a week under the circumstances.

There’s no easy answer to this, and in the end, we have to make the decision that we think works best for us, in our own individual circumstances. I wish I’d made a different one, back then. But caught in the eye of the illness, and the verbal and mental pressure to be back at my desk the next day, I made what I thought was the right decision on the day.

If you find yourself in a similar position, for whatever reason, ask yourself what you really need. Do you need to take a day’s complete rest? Do you need to take medical advice before returning to work? Is there anyone in your workplace who can advocate for you? Perhaps you need advice from an independent body, such as ACAS or the Citizens Advice Bureau.

If you find that your working days have succumbed to home-based time creep, maybe switch off the laptop and ignore the emails for a few hours. Make sure you take a lunch break. Go for a walk, or chill with a film or video game. Give yourself some time out. Your brain will thank you for it.

This is a huge topic that I’m just dipping a toe into, so I’m hoping my personal perspective helps. I’m not a health professional or an employment specialist, just a human. Sometimes we humans have to make decisions that we know will have a detrimental impact on our wellbeing. It isn’t easy, but try to be kind to yourself if your mind and body need it.

Take care, all. And thanks so much for reading.

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