There are those who obsessively overwork in corporate South Africa – experts say in the long run that’s neither good for productivity nor mental wellbeing.
Searches for the term ‘fatigue’ have increased by over 100% in the past 12 years. Globally.
The gradual but steady increase for this term is because the consequences of our culture’s obsession with work are becoming harder to ignore.
In fact, three Johannesburg-based psychologists reported to me an incredible 70% of their practice is filled with people needing help with stress and work-related anxiety. Mental health spend has increased by more than 80% since 2011 and according to Discovery Health, depression contributed to over 40% of the mental health issues the country is experiencing.
Working a 40-hour-work week isn’t enough anymore for corporate South Africa. Eighty hours a week was the status quo for South African management consultant, Munene Khoza, and many of her colleagues at her previous consultancy position.
She’s now an entrepreneur and company founder at MINT, and remembers long days and nights.
“That was definitely the company culture,” she explains, “And I can confidently say it was not limited to the company I worked for. A lot of the time, the service offering from management consultancies is much of a muchness – they all help businesses to address complex problems. So one of the main ways to differentiate themselves is completing projects in a shorter space of time. And that of course means longer hours for the consultants.”
For Olivia Sitshwele*, her demanding work environment exacerbated an underlying autoimmune disease to the point she was medically boarded and forcibly booked off work for eight months. Her current position at a new company is so much more demanding than her previous role that on top of the medications she needs for her illness, she is also taking nine different medications to help with work-related fatigue.
Long working hours can increase and validate self-esteem and a sense of self-worth for some.
This is true in South Africa, where being perceived as hardworking is a primary driver for much of the beleaguered workforce. With 48,000 jobs lost in 2017’s first quarter alone, according to Stats SA, a very real fear of the business folding or being out of work also plays a part in the working hours dynamic – because, in the end, those long hours are about the impression they create, rather than the work they produce.
The data shows that working, quite literally double, the amount of hours available in a working week, like Munene and her colleagues did, does not necessarily make you more productive.
If anything, the more hours a nation works, the less productive they are. A 2017 study by Expert Market ranked 35 countries by productivity, using GDP per capita data divided by the average number of hours worked by the nation. Mexico came in at number 35, with a yearly average of 2,255 hours. Compared to that, Luxembourg (number one) and Norway (number two) had respectively 1,512 and 1,424 hours a year on average – 32% less than Mexico. The United States came in at number six with 1,783 hours a year, and no African country was listed.
“Working longer hours is not the solution to our productivity woes,” states the study, “While many of us begrudgingly put in overtime hours to get more out of each day, the data suggests that such effort could be doing more harm than good.”
Munene describes her own experience: “As a management consultant, getting complex work done for client in record time was the aim, so very often time not overworking was frowned upon – as if your head wasn’t completely in the game. It is a little dramatic to say but I suppose I worry that if I don’t put in the hours that my business may fail and that would feel like professional and social suicide.”
With modern technology and emails on your phone, it’s harder to draw appropriate boundaries between work and home. Governments in France and South Africa have stepped in to help, legislating limitations on the use of “electronic leashes” (so named by French politician Benoît Hamon), allowing employees to switch off without penalty between certain times of the day.
Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist, Julia Halstead-Cleak, the director of Adult Services at the Day Clinic and MD of the Oxford Healthcare Centre, says this culture of work has emotional, relational and even physical consequences.
Somatic symptoms like chronic neck and backache, constant headaches and irritable bowel syndrome are all signs of overwork and are caused by the sympathetic nervous system – which runs the fight or flight response – working overtime.
“Core emotions express themselves physiologically,” says Halstead-Cleak, “and there is a huge culture of success in South Africa, where even children need to be successful and are put in occupational therapy, tutorials and extra-curriculars to fill their parents’ needs to stand out.”
Difficulty sleeping because of constantly running thoughts, an inability to feel pleasure, emotional distance at home and fatigue are all common signs that work is becoming a damaging force in your life. Because of the massive and growing impact of work on emotional well-being, Halstead-Cleak is opening a corporate healthcare facility in 2018 to specifically help with symptoms of overwork, stress and fatigue.
Long days in the office are about what those hours say about you. As The Guardian says, citing the ridiculous work hours by America’s top CEOs: “Today’s top executives are devoted work-worshippers, nearly to the point of perversity. Apple CEO Tim Cook told Time that he begins his day at 3.45AM. General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt told Fortune that he has worked 100-hour workweeks for 24 years. Not to be outdone, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer told Bloomberg News that she used to work 130-hour workweeks.”
“If conspicuous consumption involves the worship of luxury, conspicuous production involves the worship of labor. It isn’t about how much you spend. It’s about how hard you work.”
How many hours did you clock before you let yourself read this article?
*not her real name
Feeling fatigued, plagued by aches and pains, and unable to find joy in anything? Julia Halstead-Cleak, Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist and director of Adult Services at the Day Clinic and MD of the Oxford Healthcare Centre, and Richard Middleton, a senior group facilitator at her clinic, share their tips on managing anxiety.
– Written by Samantha Steele