Longer hours in Covid causing worker “mental health crisis”, report warns

Andrew Kersley

Longer working hours during the coronavirus pandemic have had a catastrophic effect on the mental health of the UK’s workforce, with women disproportionately affected, a new report has found.

The research, which was released today by the 4 Day Week Campaign and think tanks Compass and Autonomy, warns of a “mental health crisis” as 49% more staff are now reporting mental distress compared to 2017-19.

The ‘Burnout Britain: Overwork in an Age of Unemploymentreport identifies that an increase in the number of hours worked by those now working from home has been one of the main causes of the rise in mental health problems.

The research notes: “For workers who have made the transition to working remotely, the always-on culture of being available for meetings, calls and checking emails has suddenly entered their homes.

“The rapid speed of this change, alongside insufficient barriers put in place to separate work and home lives, has steadily extended the length of the working day. By April a third of [non-furloughed employees] were working more hours than usual.”

It says women are 43% more likely to have increased their hours beyond a standard working week than their male counterparts and, particularly for those with children, this is linked to heightened mental distress.

The report concludes by calling for a four-day working week for public sector workers, warning that “we are heading into an unprecedented mental health crisis, as a direct result of both underemployment and overemployment”.

Joe Ryle, a campaigner with the 4 Day Week Campaign, said: “It’s extremely concerning that overall the shift to working remotely has resulted in workers doing more hours and not less.”

He added: “This country desperately needs a four-day working week to rebalance the economy, boost mental health and give people more time to spend doing the things they love.”

According to the report, released on the eve of World Mental Health Day, the impact of longer Covid working hours has been most acutely felt by female employees, with women more likely to have increased their hours during coronavirus.

Women were also disproportionately hit by the increased demands of childcare. 86% of women working a normal number of hours but with childcare greater than or equal to the UK average experienced mental distress during April.

Alongside its call for a four-day week, the report recommended the formation of a Working Time Commission by the government to explore ways to reduce hours and share work more equally across the economy

Commenting on the new research, mental health charity Mind’s head of workplace wellbeing Emma Mamo said: “During these challenging times we encourage employers to support staff wellbeing.

“One way of doing this is by offering flexible working, this could include flexible start and finish times or for some could include working four days a week or exploring job share roles… employers could take forward more measures such as working from home or different hours to suit people’s lives.”

British employees were working some of the longest hours in all of Europe, even before the spike in hours caused by coronavirus pandemic, according to analysis from the TUC released last year.

Full-time staff in Britain worked an average of 42 hours a week in 2018, nearly two hours more than the EU average. By comparison, German workers did 1.8 hours less each week but were almost 15% more productive.

Mental Health at Work’s Alison Pay said: “The global pandemic has brought flexibility to the workplace on a scale hitherto unimaginable, but with it has come an increase in working hours and merging of boundaries between home and work and we know these factors contribute to mental health issues.

“At Mental Health at Work, we ask organisations to consider what workplace adjustments are available to them and how this can be implemented to support employee mental health.

“A shorter working week is one of those adjustments, benefitting the individual, their family and the organisation, whilst as a minimum maintaining employee engagement and productivity.”

The newest research comes after polling for the 4 Day Week Campaign indicated that 79% of business leaders are open to the idea of introducing a four-day working week to help deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Left-wing Labour shadow cabinet member Andy McDonald backed trials of a four-day week at an online event last month, citing benefits to workers’ wellbeing, the climate and the economy as a whole.

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