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This is what working late is doing to your body

Claudia Canavan
Photo credit: Harper's Bazaar

From Harper's BAZAAR

Chances are, you might know what it feels like to be the last person in the office - or, if not, you're regularly accustomed to tapping out a to-do list on the commute home and checking your inbox on a Sunday night.

In the latest European Working Conditions Survey, the UK topped the list of countries in which employees work overtime.

Elsewhere, research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that 40 per cent of UK employees check their work emails five times a day out of hours.

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Yet, out of martyrdom or madness, you do. But if you won’t clock off for your health, your sanity and your relationships, will you do it for your career? In a study of 52,000 European employees, researchers from ESCP Europe and Cass Business School found that those who spent more time working reported higher levels of stress and fatigue, as well as lower job satisfaction.

As well as linking greater work effort with reduced wellbeing, this effort correlated with inferior career outcomes. But what does this mean? "Fewer opportunities to advance within the company, less job security and less work recognition," according to Dr Argyro Avgoustaki, one of the study’s authors.

"We speculate that the quality of output may suffer when you’re working fast and putting in extra hours," adds co-author Dr Hans Frankfort. In short: while you soldier on, waiting for a pat on the back, the work you produce will suffer and those with the power to promote are likely to notice.

The issue is widespread. The study’s authors link the decline of unionism with workers being less likely to push back on working conditions; they also point to the 2008 financial crash, which caused mass redundancies in all industries, along with the unspoken assumption that remaining staff were just lucky to have a job and an expectation that they’d pick up the slack.

Photo credit: Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

In Lab Rats: Why Modern Work Makes People Miserable (£16.99, Atlantic Books), prolific US journalist and author Dan Lyons investigates how the business model of burnout, adopted by Silicon Valley and widely co-opted by other industries, is to blame for this out-of-hours obsession. Hire intelligent minds, encourage them to work 100-hour weeks for 12 to 18 months, then replace them with fresh talent when they burn out and leave.

It doesn’t sound like the best use of human resources. It isn’t, agrees WH Editor-In-Chief Claire Sanderson. "If someone is consistently working 12-hour days, it’s going to affect their productivity – no one can be switched on for that amount of time and still produce their best work," she says.

"Everyone should be able to get their workload done within normal working hours, and if they’re having trouble doing so, there should be a transparent culture where they can communicate this with their line manager, rather than letting their work-life balance suffer and resentment build. I set an example by leaving on time every day, and I encourage and expect my team to do the same."

But the repercussions can go way beyond questions of productivity, and clocking off isn’t always easy when long hours and high pressure are part of the job description.

In her first year as a junior doctor, 27-year-old Poppy Moore* found that being on the ward five hours after her shift had ended was unremarkable. "You’re dealing with people’s lives, so you can’t just drop what you’re doing and go home," she explains.

"And because of under-staffing in the NHS, no one will ever tell you to go home. But I was also fresh out of medical school, which is a competitive environment: you want to be seen to be working hard and doing well."

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The toll? Weeks on end when she was either asleep or at work; missing every birthday, drinks and brunch and living on corner shop convenience food. And yet, it wasn’t until she found herself in floods of tears one morning, preparing to leave the house for an induction at a new hospital, that she decided to speak up.

She told a senior colleague what was going on – a conversation that led to a course of CBT and psychotherapy.

If you fail to clock off then it's not just your career that’s likely to suffer. Recent research has shone a light on the stuff you can’t see.

A study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that anything over 39 hours a week – your average nine-to-fiver taking lunch breaks works a 35-hour week – can have a negative impact on your mental health. But your body also feels the impact of every extra hour you work.

Research published in the European Heart Journal detailed the health of workers over a period of 10 years and showed that racking up more than 55 hours a week meant that your chances of developing an irregular heartbeat were 1.4 times higher than those working a standard 35 to 40-hour week.

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Consider, too, that working extra hours has a knock-on effect on your overall lifestyle, and you begin to understand why it’s so toxic. A meta-analysis of existing studies published in the British Medical Journal showed that long hours could drive people to dangerous drinking; those working more than 49 hours were more likely than those putting in 35 to 40 hours to consume risky amounts of booze (over 14 units a week for women, or over 21 for men).

It’s easy to write off such findings as something that happens to other people – people with a problem – but can you honestly say that you’ve never poured yourself a student-measure glass of Merlot to compensate for yet another lost evening?

If you’re walking out the door at 5pm only to spend the next morning refreshing your phone as you slather on moisturiser, hear this: you don’t need to actively work those extra hours before your health begins to suffer, because research by Virginia Tech University found that the expectation that you’ll be available is enough to raise your stress levels.

Employees who worked a minimum of 30 hours a week were surveyed by researchers – and those who felt obliged to respond to emails reported higher levels of anxiety than those who didn’t.

This isn’t news for 41-year-old former academic Dr Pragya Agarwal.

She held senior positions at top UK universities for over a decade – and was expected to be on call pretty much constantly. "Colleagues were responding to emails at 2am, and so there’s an expectation to do the same."

Even when she wasn’t tapping out emails at stupid-o’clock, the knowledge that she needed to be reachable meant never really clocking off. Factor in a ‘ride or die’ culture that translated to "teaching students in the day, working on research in the evening and spending summers travelling to conferences" while fitting in time for her partner (now husband) and daughter? The result was an anxiety diagnosis and a letter of resignation.

It’s research compelling enough to drive you to booking a one-way flight somewhere sunny. But short of throwing in the towel on the UK’s working culture, how can you make work work for you?

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For Claire, change has to come from the top. "When I joined Women's Health as Editor, I inherited a team who were habitually working late – they were disengaged and some were on the verge of resigning," she explains.

"It was a conscious decision to transform that culture. Managers have a responsibility to set an example and to practise self-care on behalf of their teams. By leaving the office on time every day – only staying when I absolutely have to – I’m showing the team that I expect the same from them, and that there’s no little black book to mark people down for not working tirelessly."

Sage advice if you’re a line manager or lucky enough to have a boss who gets it. But what if you don’t? For Poppy, therapy helped her see that if she wanted to stay in the NHS – the pressures of which aren’t going to ease any time soon – the change could only come from her.

"Leaving when my shift ends doesn’t come easy to me – I’ve had to force myself to do it," she explains. "But I notice the difference in myself and the way I work when I have that downtime.

There will always be shifts when I have to stay a bit longer, but that’s the exception, not the rule – and I’m so glad I made that change before things got any worse."

As for Pragya, it took burning out for her to realise that the always-on culture wasn’t for her. After leaving academia, she took a break from the grind before founding The Art Tiffin, a social enterprise that makes vegan art products and wellbeing subscription boxes.

Now, she sets her own hours, and they don’t involve 2am reply-alls. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and if you’ve spent your career to date trying to prove your ambition with an all-hours approach, you’re not going to become a nine-to-fiver tomorrow. But work-life balance is self-care – and the clue’s in the ‘self ’ part.

"If the culture of your company is of the last-man-standing variety, either have the courage to be the one who gets up and leaves first, or reconsider working for that company," adds Claire. "I’ve worked in offices like that and, in the long run, these aren’t organisations you want to be a part of."

Your ambition, like your emails, will still be there tomorrow morning.

*Name is a pseudonym

This feature originally appeared in the Jan/ Feb 2019 issue of Women's Health

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