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Jenni Wilson

Nuffield Health

Corporate Director

Read more about Jenni Wilson

Mental health at work: the rise of work separation anxiety


For many of us, work is an important part of our lives. One of the first questions we ask someone we meet is ‘what do you do?’ and we even expect children to know their career aspirations when they are just a few years old.

This isn’t a bad thing – after all, our work makes up part of our identity and is one of the avenues we use to express ourselves. Even when you love what you do, however, it’s important not to let too much of yourself – and your mental health – get tied up in your job.

It’s not easy to break out of that mindset, though, especially when you’re in social circles or settings that end up being all about your job and the line between our professional and personal lives continues to become more blurred.

What is work separation anxiety?

Ask yourself this, ‘have I worried about tasks building up if I take annual leave?’ ‘Do I avoid calling in sick?’ ‘Am I afraid to pass on my responsibilities to others?’ If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, it may be a case of work separation anxiety.

This isn’t a clinical diagnosis, but it is an issue on the rise. It stems from Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD), where an individual experiences distress when they think about separating from home or from the people they’ve become attached to.

Some attachment to our job role is normal, but when we put our physical health at risk by working non-stop without taking days off to reboot our bodies, this is when it becomes a problem.

With burnout now recognised as a legitimate medical concern by the World Health Organisation, we should all understand while our jobs can provide us with a sense of purpose and fulfillment, our ability to perform our role is reduced if we don’t take time off to reset our minds and bodies.

Why the problem is on the rise

The pace of modern living and our ‘always on’ culture can exacerbate problems further.

Other individual factors like unreasonable deadlines, unmanageable workloads or a company cultures that may not encourage taking time off can also drive symptoms of overworking.

Businesses need to sit up and take note of what is happening around them. Letting our jobs dictate our entire lives is not beneficial, especially because they don’t last forever.

This growing problem doesn’t just affect individuals either. Research from the University of Calgary revealed ‘fear pheromones’ are physiologically contagious. 

If you only measure your value as a human being by your job, what happens if you are made redundant, or decide in a few years that it’s not everything you thought it would be? What happens when you retire?

Thankfully, regulations around overworking are starting to be more firmly implemented.

The European Court of Justice has just ruled employers must take steps to make sure their staff are not exceeding the 48-hour maximum working week and are taking adequate rest breaks.

Spotting the signs

While it’s great there are now regulations to reduce overworking, it’s important to train line managers and supervisors to spot the triggers of work separation anxiety and be able to offer help to colleagues they feel need it.

You might notice those suffering from work separation anxiety are working more or regularly staying late to complete tasks.

Ironically, people often do this because they believe it helps them avoid these feelings of stress. This behaviour can also result in leavism when employees use leave days to catch up on work.

The first step towards supporting employees suffering from work separation anxiety is to evaluate your work environment.

The stress of overwork has damaging effects on our physical and mental health. Those suffering may experience dizziness, tiredness, headaches, sweating and shortness of breath.

You might also hear poor feedback from their colleagues, customers or clients about an individual’s performance, or notice their emotions are more erratic and heightened in the workplace.

This growing problem doesn’t just affect individuals either. Research from the University of Calgary revealed ‘fear pheromones’ are physiologically contagious. This means others around them will also show greater activation in brain areas responding to anxiety and fear.

Pay close attention to your office environment. If a certain manager is stressed, how is their team reacting?

If worry and concern are spreading across the office, when people are about to take annual leave, this is another sign an individual is not coping.

The right support

The first step towards supporting employees suffering from work separation anxiety is to evaluate your work environment.

You should focus on getting buy-in from the top, with management modelling a healthy work-life balance.

Employees are more likely to take on the message if they see managers or directors leaving on time and having their lunch breaks.

When you measure employee satisfaction, combine this with objective measures like sickness absence rates to gain a better rounded understanding of wellbeing in your workplace.

More companies than ever are taking employee wellbeing seriously and introducing programmes to support their staff.

This mutually benefits both employee and employer, as 30.7 million working days were lost due to work-related ill health in 2017/18, with 57% of these due to stress, depression or anxiety.

You can provide support to boost productivity and employee wellbeing with external services like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs). These offer direct, confidential contact with experts who can support individuals.

Consider implementing further resources, like regular training sessions for managers to spot the signs of Work Separation Anxiety.

This can help create an open dialogue around wellbeing in the workplace so overworking doesn’t become a silent issue and support plans can be created.

Remember, it’s important the measures you take to respond to the growing epidemic of work separation anxiety are clearly communicated to employees through a variety of communication channels.

After all, what’s the point in offering a variety of great benefits if no one knows about them?

Offer your employees a variety of benefits communication channels – print, email, webinars, text messaging, phone or online chat – and give them the choice to opt into those that meet their own preferences.

Send out regular reminders about the benefits information your workers requested using these different platforms.

Make sure employees understand why you’re investing in certain benefits and their advantages too.

Interested in this topic? Read Workplace mental health: how to be caring, not just compliant.

Author Profile Picture
Jenni Wilson

Corporate Director

Read more from Jenni Wilson

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