Slave to the grind: how to spot if you have workplace separation anxiety

You’re relaxing by the side of the pool, finally taking some time for yourself on the big summer holiday you’ve been looking forward to for months. You pick up your phone just to check everything is ticking over at work and you see an email from an important client. Bang goes that holiday feeling. Better respond now, while it’s on your mind. In fact, since you’re here, you may as well go through the other emails too. No time like the present and all that.

If this sounds familiar, then pull your attention away from those oh-so-important emails for a minute and ask yourself: do you suffer from workplace separation anxiety?

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While it’s a relatively new term, workplace separation anxiety describes a situation that many of us know only too well: a recent survey by found that nearly 40pc of Irish workers don’t take their full allocation of annual leave, while a third of workers admitted to working while on annual leave.

“It’s on the rise for everybody, but there’s a couple of different driving forces here,” explains Jenni Wilson, Corporate Director of Nuffield Health. “Firstly you’ve got technology all around you, so you don’t have that clear delineation anymore between being at work in the working environment and being away from it at home.

“And let’s be honest, we’re experiencing economic instability and I think that drives companies to say ‘we need to get more done for less’, setting bigger workloads and tighter deadlines. And that creates fears about job security. People worry that if they don’t do it, they won’t be regarded well, they won’t get the promotion, they may not even have a job at the end of the day.”

Some employers may see all this as extra motivation for employees to work hard, but the science behind the topic is unequivocal: workplace separation anxiety is a health risk. In fact, just a few weeks ago, the World Health Organisation added work burnout to its International Classification of Diseases catalogue.

And it’s not helping companies either.

“You ask any of our top psychologists what’s more productive: working long and hard with no breaks or taking a break, mixing up your activity, going for a walk outside and being refreshed,” says Wilson. “They’ll all tell you that you’ll get more done and you’ll be more productive if you take more breaks and don’t work for 70-hour weeks tied to your desk. That is the fact of the matter.”

Wilson says the trouble with workplace separation anxiety is it’s a top-down issue: it can only be addressed by a fundamental shift at management levels. And one of the great issues here is that people who suffer from workplace separation anxiety have convinced themselves there’s no problem with it.

So how do you recognise if you’ve got it? “If I was doing a check on myself, I’d ask: am I worrying about work all the time?” says Wilson. “When you’re away from work, you’re still thinking about work in the back of your mind; about what you should or could be doing to do with work.

“Do you take days off sick? I’ve actually seen somebody who said ‘I don’t want to be off sick because it won’t look good and it’ll put too much pressure on other people, so I’m going to struggle on through’.

“People who are determined to control everything and won’t delegate suffer workplace separation anxiety badly. The irony is that it’s lose-lose if you don’t delegate: the talented people are resentful that they don’t get a chance to shine, and the slackers will just coast by.”

If any of this is sounding familiar, Wilson advises that you should start by writing down exactly what time you enter and leave, how long you’re taking in breaks, and what work you’re doing in your own time.

The other key things to do are to take breaks, make sure you’re taking all your annual leave, and to “delineate some time where the work machines are turned off, and you don’t consult them. You need some clear headspace”.

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