People tend to work longer hours because they believe it’s expected of them: 

In times of financial uncertainty or other life uncertainty, people become more concerned about their work to seem more productive, fear their job if they’re not prepared to work long hours. (…) My feeling is a lot of the push for longer hours is because it’s seen as expected. People feel threatened so they’re prepared to work longer. (Professor Tim Driscoll, University of Sydney, RNZ interview) 

Organisations are expected to notice and address behaviours that may lead to psychological or/and physical harm (read more about employers’ legal obligations here). Conversations around this topic may feel uncomfortable or awkward and people may also perceive them as a sign of micro-managing. That’s why we have consulted one of our clinical psychologists, Jasmine Harding, on how to approach these types of workplace conversations:

Step 1. Prepare for the conversation. Choose the time and place carefully, think about your tone of voice and the wording you want to use. It’s important that you are genuine when discussing these sorts of matters. Make sure you have dedicated time for a conversation and there is nothing that disturbs you in the moment, e.g. phone notifications. Pick the language and words that ring true to you. 

Be mindful of the location. If the conversation takes place at work, make sure it is somewhere private or consider that having a walk outside, away from the office, could be a better option.

Step 2. Start the conversation openly. “I have noticed a change (add some facts).” Speak about behaviour rather than your assumptions of what might be going on. Note that some people, in response to you noticing changes, may deny them, and be taken aback. Allow them time to process what you have said and recognise that this is likely more than a one-off conversation.  

Step 3. Be present. We encourage active listening when discussing people’s behaviour around working long hours who are likely also experiencing some level of stress. A huge amount of active listening can be done non-verbally – through our body language, positive gestures and encouragement to speak. Allow time for them to think, reflect and speak. Embrace silence when silence appears – some people require more time to process, especially if they are feeling stretched.  

Step 4. Gently coach them on change. It can be helpful to use a gentle coaching approach by openly asking them what they think will help to change work habits and practical ways to prioritise self-care and recovery. 

Step 5. Create a simple action plan with a clear first step, noting who is responsible for doing what. 

Step 6. Schedule next check-in to see how things are going and what support might be needed. 

In general, when you know your people well and have trusting relationships with them, it’s a lot easier to have these sorts of conversations. Business leaders sometimes report that they are afraid of saying something wrong; however, the most important thing is to be present for your people and coming to the conversation from a place of care. 

It’s important that everyone – including managers and their staff – know how to have conversations about mental health and wellbeing. We have workshops, designed and delivered by our team of clinical psychologists, specifically for this reason – to support teams and leaders to promote and protect wellbeing in the workplace.