extreme workers

More evidence that long hours damage your health

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P1010493It’s not new. We’ve known since WWI from experience in the munitions factories that long hours led to more accidents, deaths, and ill-health.

More recently there was inter-departmental infighting between the Department of Health and the DTI about opting out of the EU Working Time regulations (which set a maximum of 48 hours). Health had commissioned research which clearly showed that working over 50 hours a week, especially for men, led to and increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

The latest news from University College, London, based on a study of over 500,000 workers from the US, Europe, and Australia,  is that working more than 55 hours a week increases the risk of a heart attack by 13%.

Compared to people working a standard 40 hour week stroke risk increased by 10% if you worked up to 48 hours a week and by 27% if you worked up to 54 hours a week.

Working 55 hours or longer increased the stroke risk by a massive 33%.

Working long hours means you have less time to exercise or look after yourself, you probably eat fast food for the convenience and may drink more to help you relax.

Of course there are some extreme workers who appear to thrive on working long hours but how long can they keep it up?

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Taking work to extremes

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It’s the hours not the pay that separate men and women at work.

Despite the fuss about women only achieving parity with men in 50 years based on a survey from the Chartered Management Institute.

According to the survey women’s salaries increased by 2.8% last year compared to 2.3% for men. So it was claimed that if women’s pay continued to improve at that rate women would have parity with men by 2067 – almost 100 years after the Equal Pay Act.

The average salary for male managers was £41,337, about £10,000 more than women managers earned (but these surveys don’t seem to take into account the sectors where women work which may pay less than the sectors dominated by male managers).

This was also reflected at the bottom of the career hierarchy with junior male executives earning £22,253, just over £1,000 more than their female counterparts. There were bigger gaps in IT and pharmaceuticals at this level, over £3,500.

In the boardroom however it’s a different story. Female directors out-earn men with an average salary of £144,729 compared with £138, 765 for men.

Camilla Cavendish’s article in the Times (20 August 2010) is the most sensible I’ve read on this subject for ages. She rightly pointed out that women only earned less in broadly defined categories like “function head” and this could be because men are better qualified than women (as the female graduates have yet to work their way through the ranks) and more experienced (as experienced women have taken more time out).

But her main point is that it’s not about pay but about the hours.

She says women have made huge strides in terms of flexible working and work-life balance but aren’t necessarily prepared for “extreme working“. Extreme jobs are those where you are permanently plugged into your job; “10 hours a day at work, plus breakfast or dinners, plus being available to clients and bosses at weekends and holidays”. There is no switch off and these jobs are characterised by unpredictability.

Once confined to bankers, CEOs and politicians, these jobs are spreading across all sectors. She cites an American study from 2006 which found that 21% of high echelon workers had extreme jobs rising to 45% in multi-national companies. Half were clocking in over 70 hours a week, a quarter more than 80 hours, and 10% over 100 hours! And 4 out of 5 of these workers were men.

Working across time-zones means that there is always someone who needs you if you work in IT, HR, Law, or other advisory service. Having worked with virtual teams I know how disruptive video-conferencing across time zones can be to productive team working. And that’s before we mention smart phones and the internet.

Some people get a buzz from being “always on” and asking them to switch off their phones in meetings or seminars often produces a negative response. As we know from the recent BA dispute text messaging in the middle of negotiations is hardly showing respect to your colleagues across the table.

Cavendish also quotes a study from McKinsey from 1995 which demonstrated that once people worked over 65-70 hours a week there was a significant risk to health and marital status. Similarly research commissioned by the Department of Health showed that men working over 50 hours a week were at a greater risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).

That report was buried by the then government as another department was fighting the EU about the Working Time Directive arguing that the opt-out should be extended. But none of this is new. Industrial psychologists studied workers in munitions factories in WWI and found that working long hours led to more accidents and (sometimes fatal) mistakes.

And last year a survey by the Hidden Brain Drain found that nearly half of all extreme workers were too knackered to even speak to their wives or partners in the evenings. I was once asked to coach a Big 5 partner who wanted a career change because his wife was threatening to divorce him. He asked me to meet him at the airport as he was about to fly off again to Singapore. And although it is typically men who are working extreme hours I have also met female lawyers who work long hours – even pulling “all-nighters” to demonstrate to senior partners how committed they are.

So whilst some women do the time they are also more conscious of the impact on their personal lives, or lack of, whereas men seem more reliant on their job status to feel valued. For the majority of us long hours and stress eventually leads to ill-health as I have posted about previously: stress affecting senior women.