The UK workforce now has the longest working hours of anywhere in Europe, 2nd only to the US in the global ranking. And with many modern professionals wearing being overworked, under-rested and caffeine-dependent as a badge of honour, it’s clear that British working culture needs to change.

What’s more, we’ve all heard that there are health risks associated with working too much, but a recent study led by UCL showed just how serious these can be. For example, those who work very long hours are 33% more likely to have a stroke. Frightening times!

The presenteeism trap

As you’ve probably heard, ‘presenteeism’ is a growing concernin the workplace, but what exactly is it? Presenteeism is where, instead of taking a sick day, employees force themselves into work when they’re unwell. Naturally, ill workers are much less productive than healthy ones, and coming to work often prolongs an illness that a day or two of rest could have seen off. It can also happen when employees, exhausted by overly long hours, work less productively while they’re in the office.

Surely it can’t be that detrimental to productivity?

Well, according to Professor Sir Cary Cooper, presenteeism costs twice as much as absenteeism.

So, if working less hard isn’t the answer, and working shorter hours seems like a distant pipe dream for most of our readers, what can workers do to try and offset the trend of competitive (or compulsory!) overworking?

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“Your body isn’t a taxi for your brain.” Dr Tara Swart

At this year’s CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition, neuroscience expert Dr Tara Swart gave a fascinating talk on the importance of looking after both body and mind if you want to perform well and feel better at work. She suggested that a partial solution could come in the form of encouraging better self care.

Today is the start of National Self Care Week, which aims to provide people with the information, tools and support they need to empower them to look after their own health – what better time to start? From learning to relax and unplug from work, to managing long-term conditions, ‘self care’ covers everything you can do to better take care of yourself.

‘Don’t tell me what to do, I don’t need more lectures about my health’… you may be thinking. After all, nobody wants to be told that all they need to do to be healthy is eat better, exercise and drink less alcohol; especially since, for many of us, that simply isn’t true. What about those with long-term physical conditions, mental health issues, or even overly-demanding and stressful jobs?

These more obvious ‘healthy life choices’ are just one of a whole range of things we can do to take better care of ourselves.

This is where Self Care Week comes in. Putting the emphasis on empowerment rather than duty or obligation means that we can focus in on what we personally can do to make ourselves healthier and less stressed. But where can we start?

What can I do?

Consider easing yourself into things by getting involved with Self Care Week 2015, whether that’s by joining in with a local event, starting a conversation with colleagues about self care, or simply setting aside an hour to completely relax and recharge during this working week. And don’t forget, Self Care Week might officially end on 22nd November, but the practice you kick-start now can last all year round.

Be kind to yourself – your body and brain will thank you (and so will the organisation where you work)!

Our Self Care Suggestions

–  Try and assess your work-life balance to see where you could make improvements. What are the major stresses in your life? Are there any conditions or ailments affecting you which you would like to manage better?

–  You can always take a look at the Self Care Week Resource Centre if you’re unsure of what steps to take.

–  Get friends, family or colleagues involved – making changes is always easier when you have back-up, and talking to others can help you to clarify what you want to do.

–  Schedule one hour a week (or even half an hour, if you feel truly pushed for time) to do something completely unrelated to work or ‘life admin’. It can be anything at all, as long as you enjoy it; think going for a walk, taking a bath, watching an episode of your favourite TV show, doing arts and crafts, or simply having a catch up with friends or family.

–  Keep yourself hydrated – it sounds simple, but drinking enough fluids affects so many areas of wellbeing it’s hard to keep count. Find water boring? Why not add some chopped fruit or even a herbal teabag to your bottle?

–  Don’t beat yourself up if you’re still feeling stressed after your bike ride or fretting about work emails before bed – changes take time and slow progress is better than none!

Healthier work culture

Self care is only part of the solution to unhealthy work habits. It helps to balance the negative effects of a stressful, busy work life, but, ultimately, it is the culture of work which needs to change, and healthier personal practices can’t do that alone. Everyone has a responsibility to take care of themselves, but self care is undoubtedly at its most effective when it is reinforced by healthy and supportive policies in the workplace.

Aside from the health benefits, there’s a strong business case for improving your employees’ working lives. Take the company Lendlease, who offer their employees ‘wellbeing leave’ (one day per quarter which can be taken to do any activity that will increase wellbeing – visiting family, going to a yoga retreat, whatever works for them). Lendlease have seen increased levels of engagement and reduced stress since they introduced the scheme, showing how initiatives like this marry self care with healthy working policies to create a healthier, happier, and more productive workforce.

Written by Florence Sturt-Hammond