Is someone you care about working themselves so hard it may be damaging to their health? Maybe they aren’t just exhausted, but are starting to isolate themselves? Or they’re tired enough that they’re putting themselves at risk every time they drive home – many people don’t consider the fact that tiredness at the point of exhaustion is the same as impaired driving. Or, they may be engaging in unhealthy behaviours such as excessive drinking or overeating as a way to self-soothe or self-medicate.
When putting in a few too many hours becomes a problem
With overworking there are two major issues: The person’s decision to work an inordinate number of hours, and the resultant impacts on their health.
Keep in mind that the person’s decision to work the number of hours they are working may not be completely voluntary. There are a number of reasons a person may need to – or feel they need to – work these hours, some of which may include: high living expenses or debts, significant changes to life circumstances, working following a period of unemployment or preparing for retirement.
Have empathy & be kind
Whatever their reason, try to understand where they are coming from. It can feel awful to be in a position where you are uncertain about your future, particularly as we age. They are probably worried about the future, as well as frustrated or even angry at themselves, or their past circumstances. The reality is that they may need to be working at the level they are to pay the bills or have the future they once imagined.
Starting a conversation
First, ensure the conversation takes place during a time when you are both feeling relaxed. Remember to keep the conversation light and supportive, and be mindful that they probably will have a lot of pride around these issues. Start with a conversation about their future and talk generally about what their hopes and dreams are. This may help you get a picture of what they’re working toward.
Gently inquire about whether the means they are currently adopting (in other words, the hours worked) are necessary to achieve those goals. If appropriate, offer to help them with planning – you may suggest that they could find it helpful to sit down with a financial advisor who can map out plans in more detail.
Key messages to communicate
After you’ve had the opportunity to talk with your loved one about the future and gained some insight into their goals and underlying values associated with work, then, in a separate conversation, you can express your concerns about their health. Here are some suggestions about how to approach this topic:
- Describe what you are seeing. Be specific and objective. For example, have you directly observed their driving difficulties, or unhealthy alcohol or food patterns – or other problems that have resulted from overwork? Imagine being a fly on the wall and describe what you have seen specifically – such as “I’ve noticed over the past few months that your after-work drink has turned into half a bottle or more – I wonder if this has helped manage the stress you’re under?” rather than “I know you’re using alcohol to deal with stress”. Acknowledge and validate how the unhealthy behaviour may be serving some useful function.
- Tell them directly how you feel. Share that you are worried and want to see them as healthy as possible and that you don’t want your intent to come across as critical or judgmental.
- Ask if there is anything you can do that may help. Offering to help or support them may be the lifeline they need to take a step back from work or change their unhealthy work patterns.
- Offer to go to their family physician with them to talk about possible causes and contributions. It’s amazing how often people will be more willing to heed the advice from a professional.
- If they are resistant to make a change, and you have concerns about their driving, you have an obligation to inform their family doctor. Consent issues do not apply here – meaning that if you have some concerns about risk, it is in your right to call their physician (the doctor cannot release any information back to you without the individuals’ consent).
Unfortunately, you can’t magically get your loved one to value their health more than work, but you can guide them toward possible solutions that improve the situation. Visit MyWorkplaceHealth.com for more workplace resources.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published as part of a Globe and Mail “Ask the Psychologist” column authored by Dr. Samra, and has been edited and updated.
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