I can't come out, I'm doing my homework

14 years old and sick of homework? Get used to it, says Emma Cook, you'll be doing it for the rest of your life

Last week Tony Blair recommended at least 90 minutes homework a night for all secondary school children. They should try to enjoy any spare evenings while they still can, because "homework", the latest educational buzzword, isn't something they can look forward to ditching along with stodgy school dinners and cold showers when they come of age. Adults are already rapidly adapting to the idea that to hold on to their jobs in an era where down-sizing dominates, taking work home after eight hours plus in the office is a necessity.

A recent survey, carried out by the Society of Telecom Executives among more than 2,500 managerial staff, discovered that 60 per cent of respondents worked outside office hours. On average they completed an extra four hours a week, either during their work journey or at home.

So forget the cosy image of a British household where mum, dad, and two kids sit down for a night in front of the box after their evening meal. Picture, instead, a more industrious scene: mum catching up on client details because she spent the whole day in meetings, dad dictating action points, teenage son and daughter swotting for tomorrow's assessments. It's a pretty grim picture for those of us who enjoy any sort of dividing line between office work and private life.

At least for schoolchildren homework is monitored and controlled; an integrated element of their course work. For adults it tends to be an additional responsibility; a spill over from office life that they can't control. Professor Ben Fletcher, from the University of Hertfordshire, specialises in work stress and explains, "A recent study has shown that the more homework you set children, the better they do academically. What you find in the work sphere is the complete opposite."

Take Colin, a 42-year-old marketing director for a London publishing company. He describes his hefty homework load as a vicious circle. "I take between eight to 10 hours of reading and report writing back with me most weeks. If I don't do it at home it piles up and I find myself coming into work earlier and earlier then leaving later." The worst aspect for Colin is self-discipline. "In a family setting the last thing I actually want to do is open my briefcase."

Instead, he spends two or three days a week racked with guilt throughout the evening, unable to switch off. "I keep thinking about it, convincing myself, 'I'll do it after supper', then, 'I'll do it when the kids are in bed', then, 'I'll start when my wife's asleep.' Which is usually what happens. I'll work from midnight until half two because I feel so angry at the idea of slogging away while my family are still up and around."

According to psychologist Stephen Palmer, director of the Centre For Stress Management in London, this type of guilt is extremely common. "It's something I never saw in the early Eighties but it's everywhere now. Lots of people I see bring work home, leave it there and get so stressed and upset if they don't do it. Some people wake up at 4am knowing they should have done extra work and feeling bad if they haven't."

But there's another type of homeworker; the highly motivated one who never feels guilt and simply gets on with the job - at home and in the office. These tend to be high-flying achievers at the top of their tree. Judith Gershon, in her late thirties, is a senior associate partner in a large law firm and mother of three young children. "I generally take things home that I need to concentrate on undisturbed. Last night, for example, I worked from 8.30pm till midnight preparing action points from a meeting to delegate to a colleague first thing in the morning." Does she feel guilty if the briefcase stays by the door? "That never happens," she says crisply. "What I takes home gets done." She adds, "But I do resent it - and I perceive myself to be a boring person. Which is something that drives me to keep free time for myself and my family at weekends."

Most normal people must dread the prospect of homework - it was bad enough as a schoolchild - yet, as Ros Taylor, a psychologist who runs Plus Consulting, points out, even more worryingly there are many who actually relish this extra-curricular activity. Why? "For some it's an all-pervasive habit. They just love working and prefer doing it to anything else."

Iain Kennedy, 50, is managing director of an electronics company and a father of three. He admits there is little division between his work and personal time. On average, he takes home about 20 hours of extra work weekly - on top of 70 to 80 hours in the office. "I spend a long time thinking about long-term strategies," he says. "Even when I'm in my car I'm on auto-pilot, dictating thoughts into a Dictaphone." He agrees there should be more balance in his life but quite clearly enjoys it anyway. "If you didn't get a buzz from it, you'd go bananas."

According to Fletcher, zealous workers like Kennedy would benefit from an extra dimension; a sphere that's completely separate to work. "Research has shown that the wider your interests are, the more you're going to contribute to the workplace. We find people who work a lot at home are less efficient in the office ... they become tired and dull and that's amplified back into the workplace." The message is clear - too much homework is bad for your well-being; as an activity it should be kept to an absolute minimum. Schoolchildren would rejoice at such news if it only referred to them; whether grown-ups take any notice is another question.

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