Is Your Job Making You Ill?
After 10 years in general practice seeing the far-reaching prevalence of work-related ill health, I wanted to write a book to share the wisdom and experiences I have had with my patients: what has worked, what hasn’t and why anyone can find themselves affected. Work-related ill health had become a very common consultation for me in my NHS practice with a whole range of workers affected, from the highest earning CEOs to the those at the bottom of the office heap.
Work takes up the majority of our week – and sometimes the majority of our socialising – and for all of us it provides that vital aspect of day-to-day life, income. So a gripe here and there throughout our working lives is understandable and expected; we all moan about the boss or laugh at the office stereotypes, and joke about the pain of Monday mornings and the thrill of that Friday feeling.
But for many people now in the UK, work has ceased to be simply a source of grumbles or a joke, and the negative effects from work have become far more detrimental to well-being than just Sunday-night blues. For them their job has started to make them mentally or physically unwell.
Figures from the Labour Force Survey from 2016/17 estimate that the number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety was 526,000 in the UK. For every 100,000 people going to work, this means 1,610 will be affected by these illnesses.
This may seem unfathomable to some – it can be hard to empathise if your working life is content. But after a decade in general practice in the NHS I have seen just how ubiquitous and extensive work-related illness is. And of course, it is not only the individual who suffers as a result of these work-related illnesses. Work-related stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 12.5 million lost working days in the UK in 2016/17, with the average sufferer taking over 23 days off work sick.
Job related ill health doesn’t discriminate although is certainly more prevalent in those within public-sector industries such as education, healthcare, public administration and defence. You are more likely to suffer from stress within certain jobs; teaching, healthcare, business, media and public service show higher rates of stress when compared to other occupations. I know that it was one September a few years ago, after seeing a deluge of teachers with work-related illness, that the enormity of the issue was cemented in my mind.
Yet, when you are in this situation yourself it can be very difficult to know where to turn, who to speak to or where to find good quality help and bona fide advice. Patients often feel there is a lack of focused help or points of reference to support them. So my aim was to feature all the ideas, objectives and solutions covering all the facets that work-related ill health touches. Essentially, the book is a self-help guide to stopping your job making you ill, without giving up on the job itself.
There is also another tricky conundrum to overcome with job-related illness that I really hoped to solve with the book. Often patients tell me that because they are so busy or stressed with the work it can be unthinkable to consider making the time to even contemplate sorting it out; it can be impossible to get any clarity on the situation. Relaxation time becomes so precious, the last thing you want to be thinking about is your job and the way it is making you feel.
To solve the problem you really need to make the time and the headspace to think about it and address it, which can be very challenging. I saw the book as a starting point for anyone and a first step for those thoughts, as well as a way to make the headspace, clarity and time to think how to help yourself.
The book starts with encouraging readers to accept, acknowledge and affirm the issue of work as a source of illness, looking at the causes such as workload and interpersonal relationships. It also clearly sets out the most common illnesses such as depression, high blood pressure and IBS because it is so important to understand fully the conditions they are suffering from; that way they you are building a sustainable plan that doesn’t jeopardise the job.
When facing any illness, whether physical or psychological, structuring a recovery is key. Usually this is done by healthcare professionals dictating what to do and therapeutic measures to try. With work-related illnesses, however, the recovery has to be far more patient-driven, focusing on and tailored to your individual working life, career ladder and multiple other factors that need addressing. By necessity, a large part of recovery will be self-directed and very much the majority of the book is to guide people through that process. Illness makes anyone feel powerless and out of control, but I would hope that the book gives back a level of control to anyone as an individual, an employee and a patient.
I am huge believer that small changes and small ideas are as important as the big, headline ones. This is what psychologists term ‘micro-actions’ and these are well known to effect change. The plans I laid out in the book covers what may seem at first like trivial issues: diet, exercise levels, journey to work. It can be hard to fathom how reducing caffeine intake can possibly achieve anything when faced with a gargantuan, all-consuming issue such as the boss from hell, but I wanted to emphasise that micro-actions are an important part of the recovery process. We all, despite illness, have the ability and resources within us to adopt small, ‘trivial’ changes, and these are the most likely to succeed - any success, particularly when you are coming from the point of weakness that illness can be, is a positive first step. The momentum of the first positive step, however small, allows you to build on it and be more confident about making bigger changes in your working life.
I have spent many years in general practice seeing a range of different patients through work-related illness, and exploring what can and what does work: the vast majority come out the other side healthier, happier and recovered. I wrote Is Your Job Making You Ill to offer anyone in that position the chance for that same recovery.