Tasmanian premier Peter Gutwein has just reduced his work commitments to focus on his health and has handed over several portfolios to colleagues. “Basically, after working 46 days straight, which culminated in the finalisation and delivery of the budget, it’s as simple as this – my body’s not a machine. I hit the wall and I was quite unwell,” he said.
Last year, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews fronted the media for conferences for 120 days straight. He paused briefly once Victoria entered a swing of doughnut days, and in a more protracted and catastrophic manner after breaking ribs and fracturing vertebrae in a fall.
It is well-established that overwork may be related to physical health issues, including premature death by heart attack and stroke, and a wide range of cognitive consequences, such as increased errors, mood fluctuations, motor impairment and attention deficits.
New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian appears to be following in Andrews’ footsteps in relation to the intensity of her media engagement and work. Similarly, the chief health officers of various states have spoken publicly about regular 20-hour work days. Medical professionals, nurses, supply chain managers, news editors and reporters – in short, anyone involved with managing, mitigating or analysing the pandemic – will be familiar with the intensity of work the past 18 months has brought, and the seepage between the structures of work and rest.
During the early months of 2020, people snapped into crisis mode, drew on reserves of adrenalin and strength and limbered up for a sprint, to manage the emerging disaster. Eighteen months on, this is a marathon, no longer a sprint.
Many people remain in crisis mode, driven by the continuing health emergency, structural demands and personal values and beliefs about helping and supporting other people. However, personal reserves of strength are now depleted, and the wells of adrenalin have long been replaced by fatigue. Nevertheless, a majority of people soldier on, working as hard or harder than before the pandemic, thinking gratefully and guiltily of their secure employment, of the increasingly complicated workplace demands of the peri-pandemic world, and the perceived need to conduct business as usual.
Work is a solace and a way of seeking meaningful engagement, structure and routine, but too much work on a continuing basis veers into the harmful. People need time to unplug, play, rest their brains and bodies and remind themselves of their disparate identities and roles.
I usually recommend that clients carve out time for regular rest and longer breaks, including a clear separation between work days and weekends; enable a full break from work each evening (including turning off all notifications); plan regular engagement in hobbies and play; institute and maintain regular and reasonable work hours; consider new commitments very carefully before accepting; and give themselves permission to say no. Regular conversations with managers and incorporating openness about wellbeing into conversations about workload and performance may also be beneficial.
We are reaching an acceptance that the pandemic is the new normal, but appear to believe that the pandemic no longer offers any latitude and that work must return to the levels of productivity of the old normal. In some sectors, such as health and key political offices, business fires up further as the crisis deepens and people extend themselves paper-thin to meet the tsunami of need.
“But I can’t stop,” a health practitioner client said to me. “If I stop, people die.”
I have no doubt that similar beliefs underlie a significant proportion of the overwork people engage in. Certain professions are structured in a manner so as to disallow or spurn rest, and the pressures of a limited workforce and increased demand have resulted in many people ignoring the importance of rest.
Last year, during the peak of the second wave, many ICU nurses worked ceaselessly for months. This year, some of them have exited hospitals for the relative safety of Covid testing and vaccination sites, refusing to re-visit the trauma. While I hold nothing but compassion and gratitude for those who worked so hard to help us all, I cannot help but wonder if some well-placed time off and structural and personal acknowledgement of the personhood and need for replenishment would have prevented this workplace exodus, and stood us all in better stead in the long run.
When I work with people who are struggling with stress, overwork is one of the key factors contributing to this, and often remains unrecognised until it is named. A number of factors contribute to difficulties pausing work, including unrealistic workplace structures and cultural expectations, a lack of recognition of the harm caused by overwork, personal beliefs (“no one else can do my job”), personality traits and internalised expectations of self, and expressed expectations from others.
I encourage people to consider the long-term physical and psychological costs of relentless work (including burnout), to question the belief that their workplace would not survive without them (“what would happen if you did get hit by a bus tomorrow?” is a point of reflection), and to remind themselves that working harder or longer has never featured among the top five regrets of the dying.
Dr Ahona Guha is a clinical and forensic psychologist from Melbourne, Australia