Cost-of-living crisis leaves workers exhausted and scared of future

·8-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Forecasts of runaway inflation, particularly energy bills, have left many people terrified and exhausted. Terrified of falling into increasing debt, of having their savings wiped out, of the future. Terrified of living in the cold and the dark and coping with crippling anxiety. Exhausted from taking on extra work in a desperate scramble to boost their income.

So many householders are falling behind with their bills that Citizens Advice says the crisis support it’s giving is growing at record-breaking levels.

It’s confident that by the end of this month, it will have helped at least 120,000 people so far this year access food banks and other charitable support - more than the totals in 2019 and 2020 combined.

And the number of people unable to top up their prepayment meters is at an all-time high despite the warmer weather.

Together with the Money Advice Trust and StepChange Debt Charity, the advice organisation has called on energy watchdog Ofgem to urgently increase protection for millions of people, as experts warned the October price cap rise will have a “disastrous” effect.

With millions of people thought to be behind on paying their household bills, swathes of people are worrying about their debts and are working harder than ever to earn additional income.

Mental-health services are receiving steep rises in referrals of people who have never previously suffered problems directly because of the spiralling cost of living, according to a specialist nurse in London.

Chester Cornford, who himself works extra weekend shifts to help make ends meet, warned of a coming massive mental-health crisis in the UK because of runaway household bills.

“A lot of our patients’ problems come from their living standards, and as the country gets poorer there’s going to be more demand for our services,” he said. “We face the prospect of a massive mental-health crisis.

“We could be in a very scary position. And if staff are already burnt out, it’s going to be worse.”

‘Working more shifts impacts my sleep massively because it’s really hard to switch off,’ says Chester Cornford (Chester Cornford)
‘Working more shifts impacts my sleep massively because it’s really hard to switch off,’ says Chester Cornford (Chester Cornford)

Mr Cornford, 26, who has been in the job for only three years, says the pay and stress are so bad that he’s already thinking of leaving it.

“Working more shifts can be difficult but the extra money is an incentive. It’s a struggle to pay for everything at the moment so there’s no other option.

“It impacts my sleep massively because it’s really hard to switch off and it just builds and builds, and you feel you get to a breaking point.

“We’re on top of the bills right now but they’re eating more and more into our money. Our landlord is putting our rent up by 17-18 per cent and that’s on top of fuel, the cost of food.”

He said the stress affected his relationship with his girlfriend.

“It has affected my own mental health at times and I worry about burning out so something needs to change.”

Mr Cornford is far from alone. A survey for Totaljobs earlier this year found that three in 10 UK workers were taking on extra shifts.

More than three-quarters – 76 per cent – were concerned about the rising cost of living.

See all our cost-of-living coverage here

And despite their being employed, at least a third, 37 per cent, said their earnings did not offer them a good quality of life.

Since then, the cost of living crisis has deepened, and in the latest survey, the numbers wanting to boost their incomes have shot up.

Recruitment firm Indeed Flex found that half of the 2,000 people it questioned were either already doing temporary work or were planning to temp as a direct result of the surging cost of living.

Those questioned included retired people and full-time homemakers (“househusbands” and “housewives”) – suggesting that people who until now have not been going out to work are now anxious to do so.

More than a tenth – 11 per cent – were planning to take on a few more shifts, and 8 per cent were intending to do a lot more shifts to cope with spiralling prices.

Abel, 29, from Sheffield, a driver for a food-delivery company, said he had no life outside work after increasing his hours to afford his bills.

He now works every day, up to 17 hours a day – at least 100 or more hours a week in all. “That’s my life now – I don’t see friends or family. It’s not just me – every driver is doing it,” he told Radio 4’s You and Yours.

Health staff are selling back their annual leave to the NHS to increase their income. In a poll of 1,000 employees, 150 said they had sold holiday days, while over half – 700 –had worked extra shifts for cash.

But putting in extra hours is compounding the stress workers are already suffering. The research by YouGov for Totaljobs found that more than three in four (78 per cent) were suffering burnout symptoms.

Six in 10 of those surveyed said they felt tired or drained and more than one in three said they felt overwhelmed or had a cynical, negative outlook.

Those working overtime are motivated by rising inflation, which has been broken records for several months in a row, to hit a 40-year high of 9.4 per cent last month.

Soaring food and fuel prices were largely behind the increase, according to the Office for National Statistics.

And in the latest blow to struggling households, economists have warned energy costs are likely to triple, causing an “almighty hit” to living standards.

The average household could face an energy bill of £500 in January, with a predicted annual price cap of £3,850 – more than three times the price cap in summer last year.

There are widespread fears that people will be harmed by switching off their heating, hot water and vital appliances.

Carolynne Hunter, whose daughter is on a vital support machine at their home in Scotland, said: “Do you know how it feels to be scared that you will not be able to care for your loved one because you can’t afford the energy bills?”

She tweeted to Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson: “You are going to have to do something pretty soon to help families like mine or you are going to have an even bigger health and social care crisis on your hands. Where do you think carers can afford these ridiculous energy hikes!”

Labour Cllr Seema Chandwani, of Haringey, London, warned: “This is now a serious public health crisis and the government must act by intervening in preventing this increase and improving welfare support.”

Those who cannot take on extra work may be hit even harder than those putting in overtime.

Ben Harrison, director of the Work Foundation, an independent think tank, said: “It’s very likely people in part-time work will be looking for additional hours to help make ends meet in the light of the cost-of-living crisis, but the reality is extra hours can’t just be turned on like a tap.

“Many people are working part-time in the first place because they’re fitting work in around other responsibilities, for example, childcare. A lack of availability and indeed the costs associated with extending childcare often make it impossible for parents to simply take on extra shifts.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“Equally, many people will already be working long hours, and taking on additional shifts will increase stress and the potential for burnout.

“At the same time, it won’t always be straightforward for employers to offer workers more shifts. After all, they too are facing the impact of inflation and rising energy bills, and will need to be carefully managing their finances during this period.”

Sleep experts warn of the dangers to health and safety of taking on too much work.

Martin Seeley, of MattressNextDay, said: “Working two jobs can be very demanding on a person’s mental and physical health. Those who consistently work nights, early mornings or have rotating shifts for a long period can lead to the development of ‘shift work disorder’.

“This is a condition characterised by insomnia symptoms when they attempt to sleep and experience excessive tiredness at work.

“It can also cause cognitive impairments and physical complications, which can make you more prone to brain fog, or errors and incidents at work.”

Rishi Sunak, before he quit as chancellor, announced a package of support worth £15bn to help the UK through the crisis.

It includes a one-off payment of £650 for 8 million families on benefits, £150 council tax rebates for homes in bands A to D and a £400 discount on bills.