Finding balance

As WHO names Bangkok an overworked city, local doctors warn about WFH pressures

Long working hours can cause physical and mental health issues, and the coronavirus epidemic is exacerbating the problem when people are forced to work from home and spend the entire day in front of a computer.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO), the first global study of the loss of life showed 745,000 people died from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016 as a result of working at least 55 hours a week, a 29% rise since 2000.

"The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work. Teleworking has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work," said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general.

"Many businesses have been forced to scale back or shut down operations to save money, and people who are still on the payroll end up working longer hours. No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease."

The new analysis shines a spotlight on managing working hours and the Covid-19 pandemic can hasten the trend towards longer working time, with people in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia regions as well as middle-aged or older workers being the most affected.

"Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard. It's time that we all, governments, employers and employees, wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death," added Dr Maria Neira, director of the WHO's department of environment, climate change and health.

Kisi's Global Work-Life Balance Index 2021 lists Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Buenos Aires and Seoul among the top five cities with full-time employees working more than 48 hours per week.

Designed to be a guideline in improving the quality of life and relieve work-related stress, the index analyses 18 factors in the work-life balance of 50 cities worldwide and focusing on those that encourage a healthy balance through policies and urban infrastructure as well as those who have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the WHO, more than 300 million people suffer from depression, while a negative work environment may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity.

Research indicates that work can lead to chronic stress and job burnout. To promote mental health, workplaces are more likely to reduce absenteeism, boost productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.

Psychiatrist Ornpailin Ratanapinsiri of the Paolo Hospital Phaholyothin's Let's Talk said that the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted people's lives and many people are experiencing stress. Working from home is handy, but it requires employees to sit in front of a computer all day.

"Some companies have used video calls to monitor their employees. Sometimes, supervisors schedule an online meeting at 6 or 7pm, forcing office staff to work overtime. At the same time, schools have shifted to online platforms and some parents have no time to take care of kids. When they become strained, a family feud ensues," Ornpailin said.

"We become concerned about the new wave of the virus outbreak after learning that people in our area have been infected. People prefer to stay at home, so there's no way to unwind or interact with others. Seniors who have retired suffer from depression and low self-esteem as a result of their inability to participate in any activity or social engagement."

Contributing factors have varied and poor sleep quality is a significant symptom of prolonged stress. Early on, people may lose focus at work and become bored in everything before succumbing to depression and isolating themselves from society.

Long working hours can lead to physical and mental health problems. (Photo: Wisit Thamngern)

"Because work-related stress is regarded as a negative feeling, many people opt to keep it hidden. In Thai culture, most parents often encourage their children to remain patient rather than expressing their sympathies. In contrast to old generations, people today are willing to visit a psychiatrist. It doesn't mean that they're sick. They just want someone to listen to them or give them some advice to help them find a solution since they have realised how mental health affects their lives, career and relationships," she said.

Office workers between the age of 30 and 49 tend to have chronic stress, but they are often unaware of it. Some people discover this after they've retired from their jobs. By that time, it's too late and their symptoms have progressed to depression and low self-esteem.

As a result, maintaining a healthy work-life balance is essential for a decent quality of life. People should learn how to maximise time and prioritise tasks in order to increase productivity while reducing stress.

Ornpailin suggests breathing exercises and meditation as a way to mediate and alleviate the harmful effects of stress.

"It's a simple approach to relieve stress, refocus your attention and renew your mind. Besides, you should avoid using social media after work or on weekends. Many people carry a smartphone with them all the time to stay in touch with coworkers. It's harmful to mental health. You work to live, not live to work," she said.

She also recommends taking periodic 30-minute breaks during the workday to "refresh our mood and brain".

"After a long day at work, we should enjoy leisure time and hobbies like watching a drama series, drawing, reading a book or exercising," she said.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed people's lives and wreaked havoc with the global economy. IT technical support jobs, executives, office workers, doctors and entrepreneurs are among the people who are at risk of being overstressed.

"Today, as most commerce has shifted online, IT support crews have been required to be available at all times to repair faults when customers complain," she said.

"One of my patients is in her 20s and was required to work every day. She had no time to eat, hang out or even take a rest. It affected her way of life and relationships with her family, friends and boyfriend. Actually, there are several factors like her boss and workplace policies. I suggested she inform her company about her mental health and her boss was willing to make their work schedule more flexible. Now, she is better and still works at the same place.

"Another one is an executive with expectations for career advancement. She has been under pressure since starting a new job. She worked from home, but there was still no time for family. This caused issues and she finally opened her mind with her husband to find a solution. Actually, she only needed someone to share her feelings and she is now learning how to enhance her work-life balance."

Ornpailin explained that overtime work can lead to an adjustment disorder, which decreases brain chemistry and can cause people to become irritable. However, people will deal with their emotions in different ways depending on their personalities.