Can you find life after work?
Thursday 26 March 1998
When Stuart Levermore finally switches off his computer, its generally half way into the evening. Working as a CAD Engineer in a busy architectural practice may be one of the most cutting edge careers, but it's also one of the most high pressured. If there's a presentation to be done or a project to be finished then the concept of a nine- to-five day simply disappears. In a particularly busy week, Stuart has spent 70 hours in the office.
The hours he works may seem extreme, but they are not unusual. "The whole of the buildings services industry works to very tight deadlines and the pressure can be horrendous. The work has to be done so you have to work the hours - but I think that's true of many jobs these days - particularly for people who are just starting out."
Most people who work incredibly long hours often finish their day by slumping in front of the TV: staring, glassy eyed and exhausted at whatever is on before slipping gently into an uncomfortable sleep. For Stuart, however, the end of his day brings a transformation - one moment a mild mannered mouse manipulator, the next a leather clad speed freak who screeches back to Camberwell on his Honda CBR 400, leaving the stresses and strains of the day behind him.
"There's nothing like it," he grins, unconsciously patting his bike, rather like a proud father. "After a day stuck in front of a computer screen, it kind of reminds me that I'm living - that I do exist outside work."
Stuart's bike is also his hobby and he spends time on the weekends tinkering with it. "I'd hate to think of myself as some sort of bike anorak," he says, grinning, "but I get a real kick out of riding it and I like to look after it. Sometimes I'll clean it even when it doesn't need it. If life gets too stressful or I'm worried about something then I know I can just go off, away from everything. Its hard to explain to people who don't ride bikes, but when it's a sunny day, the bike is smooth and you switch off completely and just enjoy the ride".
According to Professor Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at UMIST, Stuart is likely to be a far more productive and healthy member of the workforce for having an interest outside work. "We are becoming a workaholic culture," he says, "more and more people work evenings and weekends and have little life outside their work." He believes putting in such long hours can actually be counter productive. "Everyone needs a break from their working life, we all need some r&r and doing something completely different gives us that. If you just come home from work and collapse in front of the TV its probable that you are still thinking about your job. If you do something completely different then it allows you to shake off the working day."
For Kevin Jennings, tearing up and down a football pitch is his way of relinquishing his worries about the London Underground system. Working as a Project Engineer usually means an average of around 55 hours work a week, although if there's a deadline to work to it can mean a lot more. No amount of work, however, will stop him from his weekly appearance on one of the numerous football fields at Hackney Marshes.
"I have quite a lot of responsibility in my job, which makes for a fairly stressful existence," Kev admits. "Some nights I'll just come home and fall asleep but it helps to know that come Sunday, I'll be totally involved in something completely different. Playing in a team means you've got to concentrate and think about the game - you're competing and other people are relying on you. For those 90 minutes on the pitch I don't think of anything apart from who I'm going to pass to, or how to get the ball."
Exercise has long been thought of as one of the best forms of stress management, raising the endorphins in the brain and producing a general feeling of well being. "Exercise is such a good release and it's a way of shutting everything else out. Apart from the football itself, it's the whole thing of being in a team," says Kev, whose local pub sponsors the team in return for a guaranteed post match drink up on Sundays.
Not only does Kev take his mind off his job by playing football, he is also becoming part of the community - taking part in something that joins him to other people. "This is incredibly important" says Professor Cooper. "The community needs us, we need to put more into belonging to a community rather than existing in hermetically sealed bubbles. As we become a more mobile society, moving away from our extended families, it is important to forge bonds in the community, as a social support system and also give us a sense of belonging."
And communities are out there, offering all sorts of ways to join in and forget about the pressures of the day - even if it is only for a couple of hours a week. Joining a theatre group, belonging to a football or cricket team, or even going to an evening class can give you a sense of belonging to something else besides a work structure, and can help define your personality in other ways.
Katie Nesling, a 27-year-old careers officer, readily admits to being a bit of a couch potato up to about a year ago. "I did a lot of overtime and would often come home and eat dinner in front of the TV before going to bed. But when I split up with my boyfriend I found that sitting at home wasn't helping - I couldn't stop thinking about it. So I signed up for an evening class, doing pottery. I'd never done anything like it before - and I never actually made anything usable or recognisable but I still really enjoyed it - having somewhere to go and something to do that was completely different to work. I just forget about everything for those two hours - probably because I had to concentrate so hard because I was so useless!"
"It is essential that we learn how to balance home and work," says Professor Cooper, who has done extensive research into work related problems and believes that the long hours many people work can be directly linked to the fact that England has one of the highest divorce rates in the EU. "People should get involved in something outside work - maybe they can get involved with their family or partners. We prioritize work so highly these days - and other things are just as - if not more important.
"Become a local politician, sing an aria, recite Shakespeare, teach judo - do something," says Professor Cooper. "Life is not about work. It's time we got a more balanced attitude to living. Working hard and being committed is fine - continuously long hours are not. The phrase that's starting to be heard in America is 'work smart not long.' It's time that started to be taken on board over here."
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