Dealing with all-nighters

THE trend towards more streamlined business operations is requiring a far greater commitment from employees, especially with regard to the hours they work.

While burning the midnight oil is recognised practice in many industries when special projects are involved, there’s an increasing expectation from managers for their employees to work overtime.

In warning of the obvious dangers associated with regularly working long hours, health professionals have recommended people pay attention to more than just work. Focus on a balanced, healthy lifestyle tops this list.

There are certain steps that can be taken to minimise short-term and long-term risks to health.

The effects of working 10 or more hours a day can be quite significant, with physical and mental deterioration brought on by stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, lack of exercise and the like having a profound long-term impact.

In 1999 the Australian Medical Association released a National Code of Practice for the number of hours of work, shiftwork, and rostering for hospital doctors.

The code detailed the effects of working long hours on employee health, stating that the most common short-term effect arising from night-shift related sleep disruptions was gastro-intestinal problems.

“The research on long-term effects is equivocal but the following areas have been highlighted in research findings: increased risk of cardiovascular disease; effects on women including irregular menstrual cycles; and a diverse range of complaints, sometimes overlaid by stress created by social and family dislocation,” the code says.

Curtin University counsellor Jim Elliott said typical stress symptoms that could be brought on by working long hours included loss of motivation, withdrawal from social interaction, and poor eating habits.

“People may notice aches and pains that are induced by muscle tension. Being tense for a long period of time tenses the

muscles and it will usually result in headaches, or if you use a keyboard a lot it will be back, neck and shoulder pain as well as headaches,” Mr Elliott said.

He said people working extended hours could experience sleeping problems that could result in negative long-term health effects.

“People may have disturbed sleep or difficulty getting to sleep because they are wound up and have intrusive thoughts running in their minds. Or people wake up and can’t get back to sleep,” Mr Elliott said.

“And you can’t recover by sleeping more on the weekend. You can’t sleep for three

hours a night for five days

and sleep for 12 on the weekend.

“People might turn to chemicals to help them; tobacco, alcohol, prescribed medication or illegal substances. If you control it that way you are in trouble. It becomes a dependency and you get the long-term health effects from the chemical.”

He said exercise was crucial for those wanting to be productive over long working hours.

“During big jobs there is often thinking time that doesn’t require you to be at your desk. Go for a walk or go to the gym and burn the tension,” Mr Elliott said.

“You also need to eat properly. The sugar hit is deceptive. It’s an instant hit of sugar that you burn off after 20 minutes. Carbohydrates like pasta and bread take longer to burn off. “

Australian Institute of Man-agement executive director Patrick Cullen said employees were generally working harder and longer hours but the key to having a productive employee base was incorporating employee down time into the office culture.

“Some people need to work long hours to get a project out on time. There is some merit in having what I call recharge time, time where they can charge the batteries,” he said.

“How to get the best out of a worker for the benefit of the employer and employee is a matter of giving them time off.”

Mr Cullen said people were becoming increasingly important for business competitiveness and that companies that failed to adequately care for their workers may not only have high staff turnover rates and high levels of absenteeism, but also less productive workers.

“People who regularly work long hours are not doing them-selves or the company any favours,” he said.

“People who strive for a better balance tend to have a better perspective on things and make better decisions.”

Curtin University healthy life-style program coordinator Jillian Woolmer said working for too long could erode a person’s ability to think clearly.

“One of the first things to go is the ability to think creatively and to solve problems,” she said.

Ms Woolmer said working a long day was fine for the short term but over a period of time it would affect an individual’s health.

“You can only be in a pressure cooker for so long and your health deteriorates, and deteriorates fast,” she said.

Mr Cullen said workplaces that afforded employees flexible hours were offering the opportunity for their staff to enjoy a balanced lifestyle.

“We need to be generating a culture where employees know they are free to take time out within reason. There are those that are dedicated to the job and if they are burning the midnight oil their manager needs to be saying, ‘take some time out’,” he said.

Mr Cullen said managers should monitor employees who were working long hours and determine why this was the case.

“It could be said that someone working extremely long hours on a regular basis is demonstrating inefficiency because they can’t get the job done in a reasonable time frame,” he said.

“It could be a sign of inefficiency, lack of training, or that they are not suitable for the job.

“If there is a situation where someone is working 16 hours a day for five days a week there is a responsibility for the manager to assess two things. One, the resourcing levels and the structure of the organisation and two, the skill level and the training and development of the individual employee.”

Ms Woolmer said people working long hours should avoid stimulants such as caffeine.

“People should have a bottle of water and sip it, rather than drinking coffee,” she said.

“Water clears your head and helps hydrate you. If you get dehydrated you ger headaches and possibly migraines.”

Small business is one industry sector well acquainted with long hours.

Small Business Development Corporation managing director George Etrelezis said small business owners who delegated duties or put in place management teams were freeing up time spent at the office.

“For small business owners the incentive to work is greater. There is an inclination to work more hours because they appreciate that it is their capital on the line,” he said.

“There is also fierce competition and if you don’t put in the hours then your competitor will.

“They are not just working at the service end; there is the marketing, follow-up, BAS statements and so on. The ones who do very well put in processes to reduce those hours.

“They get in a very good bookkeeper or manager but they tend to be the small to medium businesses, not the micro ones.

“There is a tendency for small business owners not to delegate because of an assumed responsibility.”

Mr Cullen said finding a balance was essential to managing stress.

“There will always be an element of stress. We can only control how we manage it and we should be focusing on how we manage it,” he said.

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