Families feel the pressure as the slump takes its toll

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A far-reaching study is spelling out the alarming consequences for our personal lives in the gloomy economic climate

A culture of "downsizing", where long working hours and job insecurity have become the norm, is leading to a "vicious cycle" of stress and people losing out on family life. These are the preliminary findings of a government-funded report into work and relationships in Britain, by the Working Families and One Plus One charities, the final results of which will be released next year.

One in four workers "constantly" does more than their contracted hours, with a further one in five doing so "frequently". Just 7 per cent have the luxury of never doing so. And nearly a third of employees suffer from anxiety or panic attacks due to work stress, while more than half admit to being exhausted and irritable at home.

Nearly a third of those surveyed blamed relentless pressure of work for drinking or smoking too much, and half said they often sacrifice regular exercise as a direct consequence of stress from work.

Family life is suffering, too: one in three workers said they do not get to eat with their families more than twice a week. And 86 per cent of working parents claim to have lost out on time with their children, with almost a third "frequently" or "constantly" sacrificing family time. Unsurprisingly, 27 per cent of employees feel less productive. And 33 per cent are less engaged at work, while 34 per cent find themselves regularly distracted at work due to stress at home.

The findings are from a survey of more than 200 people this summer – part of a two-year Happy Homes, Productive Workplaces project that began in May this year.

Although recent years have seen a number of advances in flexible working, the dire economic climate is exacerbating existing pressures at home and work, with rises in the cost of living and the threat of redundancy.

"The interaction between family relationships and work can be a vicious cycle, with stress from each crossing over and damaging the other," states the report.

Its findings are "very concerning" according to Sarah Jackson, chief executive of Working Families. "It's a picture of a way of working that isn't doing us any good, either personally or with family relationships," she said.

This comes as it emerged last week that stress has become the top cause of long-term sickness absence for the first time across British industry, according to a survey of almost 600 organisations across the UK which employ nearly two million workers. Nearly four in 10 (39 per cent) employers reported an increase in stress-related absence during the past year, and employers planning redundancies are "significantly" more likely to cite such problems among their staff, according to a poll by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and the health firm Simplyhealth.

More than a quarter of employers have noticed an increase in the number of people coming to work ill in the past year, and nearly two-fifths report an increase in mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, among employees.

Work-related stress costs the UK some £4bn a year, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, said: "Now is the time to focus on – rather than ignore – the negative stressful consequences that work and home can have on each other."

There has been a "cultural shift" towards more flexible working by employers in recent years, according to Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary. But he warned: "Attitudes vary between workplaces and sectors, and flexible working is still frowned upon by many employers. Worse still, the recession has put a further strain on people's working conditions.

"Increased job insecurity has made people more wary of asking to shift and reduce their hours, while unpaid overtime is rising again after years of decline. Staff now give away around £29bn a year in unpaid hours at work," he said.

Interviews by Antony Peyton and Nicky Pear

Matt Dean, 46

Father of three, from Brighton, Sussex; works in human resources and employment law

"I was diagnosed with throat cancer in May 2009 and for six weeks had chemotherapy and radiation treatment. By the end of the year I had slowly recovered. It was during this convalescence that I had time to reflect on my situation.

"My cancer wasn't connected to the amount of work I was doing, but clearly I needed to take a step back and re-examine my priorities.

"I would often leave home at 6.30am and sometimes get back at 10pm. There were clearly things that made me a workaholic. I convinced myself that it was totally normal to go into work at 6am on a Saturday or Sunday. I saw it as having great time management, when in reality it put me in the completely wrong mindset for the rest of the weekend.

"I am a proud father of three boys aged 14, 12, and 9, and I think in the past I never really appreciated them. Sometimes I snapped at them, but it was mainly never spending enough time with them.

"In January 2010 I went back to work but returned to my old habits. I tried again, and in July 2010 things started to improve. I recognised small things – like there is a difference between arriving home at 6pm or 7pm, giving an extra hour to spend with the boys or simply be in the house. I'm getting better at distancing myself from work, and my relationships with my family feel better."

Alison Partridge, 43

Mother of two, from London; set up project management company

"It was during a bout of illness that I had a chance to reflect on tedious commutes and a lack of time spent with my family. Things had to change, and I decided to take the plunge and become my own boss.

"I'm really pleased I can combine my work and my family priorities. Running my own business allows me to do this effectively. I hope that I provide a strong and positive role model for my children, and believe this is important if we are going to change attitudes.

"It's not always easy, and there are lots of challenges, but I like to think that it can be done and that there are ways to get the right balance.

"Modern technology and social media have really helped me to keep in touch with people and manage my time more flexibly. I can have virtual meetings with clients, which reduces travelling and gives me more time for my family.

"I have ground rules – I very rarely work weekends, always try to have a family meal in the evening, and am strict about holidays – no iPhone and no work."

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