Focus: Generation X-hausted

We all work far too hard. Five million people do overtime for no extra pay. On the eve of Work Your Proper Hours Day, here are real-life reasons why we can't just tell the boss to shove it - and one woman's story that will make you think you could
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The Independent Online

So, the TUC has scheduled a Work Your Proper Hours Day for Friday. Hah! "Work your proper hours?" You might as well try to drum up support for a "Women Love Fellatio Day" or "Men Initiate Conversations with Other Men About Their Feelings Day" because it just won't work (no pun intended).

So, the TUC has scheduled a Work Your Proper Hours Day for Friday. Hah! "Work your proper hours?" You might as well try to drum up support for a "Women Love Fellatio Day" or "Men Initiate Conversations with Other Men About Their Feelings Day" because it just won't work (no pun intended).

They have chosen 25 February because it is the point in the year at which the average person doing unpaid overtime finally starts working for themselves. But we already know that we do much more than we need or ought to, and our slave-like devotion is rarely rewarded or even recognised. It doesn't take too many comparisons to get your blood boiling - teachers and nurses, toiling away at what are arguably two of the most valuable jobs in the country, work ridiculously long hours and are paid pitifully low wages while the bloke currently cocking up Marks & Spencer's hitherto unstoppable profits gets more moolah, and as a bonus if you please, than most of the country put together.

It was ever thus. The British are work horses. We are an obsequious lot doffing our collective cap at the "guv" while internally seething with rage at the injustices meted out to us by him and his like. And for once, this unappealing trait doesn't just apply to women. Somehow we all seem to have been conned into believing that we are lucky to have a job. Now, for some of us this is true. It is genuinely wonderful to have a job you love - and I should know. In my leaner years (financially lean, not physically lean, I've never had any of those) I did temporary secretarial work and I loathed every minute of it.

I hated it because it wasn't my chosen career and because I felt it wasn't worthy of my talents ("comedy typing" isn't much use at an architect's firm). And yet I worked not only as many hours as I could because I needed the money to live, but also more hours than strictly necessary, which often went unpaid. This extra effort was always in response to some senior person's plea: "Could you just stay to finish this?" or "You're OK to help finesse this, aren't you?" or worse, the faux-innocent comment designed to further their own ends via the well-known method of making you feel bad about yourself: "Oh, are you leaving without dealing with this?"

Why is it that we don't just politely but firmly reply, "Well, yes I've been at it all day and I'm off now. It can wait." Why don't we have proper self-esteem and self-worth? Why? Because we've been brought up by undermining "count-your-blessings-don't-rock-the-boat" types who have made us feel that if we do not try our extra-special-best all the time then we will get a nasty surprise in the shape of someone else much more talented/willing/attractive/pleasant who just happens to be hovering around the corner eager to pounce on the job and, what's more, for half the wages. Or is that just me?

We are fearful of standing up for ourselves en masse and not many of us have the nerve and self-belief to go it alone. So while I would love to believe we would all do our proper hours and no more for a day - with all the chaos that would ensue - it is no more likely than Tony and Gordon holding hands, weeping and sharing their pain on Trisha before the next election. And that ain't never going to happen.

The lawyer

I never take my full five weeks holiday - and I never switch off

Victoria Green, 33, divorce and family lawyer in Birmingham

I have never added up the hours I do but it's way beyond a 40-hour week. Some days are nine to five, others are seven to nine, and I routinely take work home. You sit down to dinner then you do a couple of hours work. I have five weeks holiday a year, but I don't think I've ever taken the full five weeks.

I hear a lot of whingeing among young lawyers about the hours, but you have to remember the fiscal rewards. I make a lot more than my peers in other jobs.

The job forces you to make hard decisions: for example, I'm 33 and have no plans to have children because I can't afford to take that much time off. In six months, you can lose track of developments, the law is so fast-paced and changes so much.

You never really switch off from this job. When you've been dealing all day with an abused child - or in criminal law if you end the day with a client going to prison - then you do have sleepless nights.

Specialising in matrimonial law has had other impacts on my life in many ways. I waited until I was over 30 to marry and I was very careful about my financial arrangements once I did. My partner is also a lawyer so he understands the long hours.

He's a few years older than me and he wants to get out of law. I know a lot of lawyers in their 40s who are desperate to leave because of the work involved and the pressures of the job.

The down-shifter

I felt better, slept better and stopped being a stroppy cow

Nikki Rothery, 37, recently took a pay cut to reclaim her life

Working my way up in television from secretary to script editor, I put in many more hours than the job was supposed to take. You had to do that to keep a job in telly, let alone be noticed.

It was expected you'd take phone calls any time of the day or night. Every weekend, I was either taking calls, reading scripts or in the office. Every holiday I had was interrupted by phone calls from work. Bosses rely on you for all sorts of things, inane things they can't be bothered to do themselves, then if you don't do them you're useless.

I just thought, that's it - I want a life! Now I work in sales, nine to five. I took a pay cut of around 20 grand, but I've made some of that back. Straightaway my troublesome shoulder cleared up, I slept better, and my relations with friends, family and boyfriend improved because I wasn't "a stroppy cow" any more.

The teacher

We all work our lunch breaks - the workload is phenomenal

Howard Brown, 49, head of information communications technology at Hetton School in Sunderland

Most secondary teachers teach five one-hour lessons a day, which makes 25 hours a week. What people don't see is the preparation beforehand: 30 minutes per lesson, plus marking afterwards which takes up to one-and-a-half hours. I'm lucky teaching IT. For English teachers, marking more able children can take them 30 minutes for each script after every lesson.

The workload can be phenomenal. The Government and Ofsted have this wonderful idea that we must track every individual child in writing. In effect, we not only have to teach, we have to write down everything we do for every child.

If you go into a school staffroom at lunch now, it's empty. Everyone works through their lunch breaks. Young teachers come into the profession bright-eyed and find out they can't go away at weekends because they're working, they're at school until the caretaker kicks them out at 6.30pm, they take work home - in three years they want out. With some new headteachers, school is their hobby and they're imposing their hobby on their staff.

The low-paid worker

I need three jobs to live in London

Treva Sealy, 38, actor who also has three other jobs

I'm a learning mentor in a primary school in Clapham from 10.30am to 5pm. I do my bartending job at a restaurant/bar in Chelsea from 6pm to 2am. On Saturday mornings, I run a drama academy for kids.

I work six days and four nights on average. I take one day off a week, on Sundays. I started out doing the bartending 10 years ago but you can't make enough for London prices, the mortgage, the car ... My partner works in marketing for a charity and she makes a good wage, so that helps a lot, but I need all my three jobs to make around £20,000 a year. All my friends are actors. When they're not acting, they do more than one job, or they put in very long hours at a single job. It does take its toll. It's not even like you get home at 2am and go to bed, you can't, you have to unwind for a couple of hours. I used to work in a club, getting in at 4am then up again at 9am for my day job. I did it for a year but it got too much.

Finding energy for auditions is never a problem. Just the thought that this one audition might get me out of the three jobs for a day, a week or a month gives me all the energy I need.