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Toiling towards an early grave

Toiling towards an early grave

In areas such as law, information technology and banking, working long hours is part of the culture.

Young people are working harder than ever to succeed - and often it is at the cost of their health. A young, former employee of Macquarie Bank recalls handing in her security pass on her final day at work. The security guard commented on how young she looked in the photograph on her pass, taken the day she started work. She must have been there a long time, the security guard said.

She'd been there only two years.

Enough about generation Y having it easy. Many young employees are working harder than ever to get ahead and, when forced to juggle relationships, family and social commitments, are compromising on sleep and in effect increasing their health risks.

Research entitled Sleep Health NSW: Chronic Sleep Restriction and Daytime Sleepiness undertaken last year by the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research reveals that an epidemic of "sleep-debt" is developing in people through the working week, which is then "paid off" by sleeping for lengthy periods at the weekends - something that does not lead to a healthy lifestyle.

A young lawyer in her mid-20s was working on a large case and clocked 270 hours in a month (working 9am to 5pm with a break for lunch equates to 140 hours a month).

Her partner took clean clothes into her office every few days and she averaged two hours' sleep a night.

In areas such as the law, information technology and banking, working long hours is part of the culture.

NSW Young Lawyers president Joshua Knackstredt says as a young lawyer there is "pressure to stay late even if you have finished everything," and that working hard is often recognised by working long hours.

"[Young lawyers] don't have to work long hours but then they're seen as not having the commitment. They would not find themselves being promoted," he says.

"When people start a new job they want to impress and things take longer than for a more experienced person. But once they're incorporated into the culture, it's ongoing."

Knackstredt says that whereas once it may have taken three years to become a partner in a big law firm, these days it can take 10 to 15. "It's getting harder to become a partner and people are working harder and longer if that's their goal," he says.

While many lawyers are allocated a mentor when they start working and many firms provide in-house counselling, Knackstredt believes the internal nature of the system does not encourage young lawyers to utilise it.

"I don't think it really encourages younger lawyers to be open and honest about their problems or in helping people deal with having to stay back late," he says.

"I think we might see a much bigger response to that because firms are finding it difficult to retain staff."

Anne Junor from the Industrial Relations Research Centre at the Australian School of Business says young workers often have a fear of unfair dismissal. "They are vulnerable because they really don't know what their hours or entitlements are," she says.

Junor says that many young employees "seem to be working full time, studying full time and wanting to have a social life and party as well, which means they are chronically tired. That means they have to do everything faster and cut corners."

Young workers do like to socialise. They like to spend their evenings and weekends attending shows, parties and other social events, but this equates to late nights and late nights followed by long days in the office can be draining on the body. The result is often a feeling not dissimilar to jet-lag.

Knackstredt has heard stories about lawyers leaving work to go to see friends or attend social events and returning to the office later in the evening to resume work.

"You have to have down time," says Delwyn Bartlett, sleep psychologist with the Woolcock Institute. "Basically what you're looking at is a difficulty with sleep onset . . . We know that with good, normal sleepers you can delay sleep onset by 40 or 50 minutes, just by sitting close to your computer screen for a period of time before you try to go to sleep.

"If you're out dancing or raging or you're playing team sport until late, you're not going to be able to allow sleep onset to occur.

"Say they've gone to a gig, it's hot in there, it's noisy, it's loud, their body temperature will be very high . . . and one of the important factors for the onset of sleep is a fall in core body temperature.

"So then somebody comes home, their brain's buzzing, there's part of them saying 'I'm really tired', but their body actually isn't ready to do it."

The opposite thing that can happen is that the person can be physically exhausted, but find they are lying awake in bed with their brain working overtime, unable to switch off.

A young employee in the property sector was recently sent to hospital with severe chest pains and acute pain down his left arm. He spent two days in hospital before being told that it was most likely stress induced.

He usually works between 50 and 60 hours a week - but the week before he was hospitalised he worked three 15 to 17-hour days and two 12 to 14-hour days. He says he no longer goes out during the week so that he can try to get eight hours' sleep a night, but he often doesn't sleep very well because he's still thinking about work.

He even keeps a pad of paper and a pen next to his pillow in case he wakes up and has to remind himself about something work-related.

An inability to achieve catch-up sleep on the weekend can increase the risk of burn-out, with negative social and work-related consequences.

Bartlett says: "For the young workers, if you are continually sleep deprived, the first thing that happens to you is you need to use a lot more energy to do the things you would normally do at work because you're tired, you're fatigued, probably not eating very well, probably consuming alcohol and maybe some recreational drugs . . . and then you've got the issue that you're putting stress on the immune function, putting yourself at risk of diabetes type 2.

"You are more likely to not go to work, more likely to have a car accident because you're not attentive . . . and you're also, more importantly, giving yourself cardiovascular disease and stress that you probably don't need."

Fairfax Business Media

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Tags generation ywork-life balance

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