IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Staying alive when working flat out

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 26, 2013

IN MY first week on the job at an investment bank a few years ago, I learnt that one of my new colleagues had just pulled a 60-hour shift.

A fresh graduate from university, he had been asked to build a financial model on his own in three days - and so he didn't go home until it was done. Apart from a few quick naps on one of the office sofas, he was basically glued to his desk, eating takeout meals between typing and sweating away.

(When I heard this story, my first question was: "You mean he didn't shower for three days?")

The tale of the crazy 60-hour guy - I can call him that now, because we later became friends - came back to me last week when I read that an investment banking intern in London had been found dead after apparently working 72 hours without sleep.

Sadly, for any investment banker, this will not be a surprising story. Working from sunrise to sunrise is not uncommon, although to go three days with zero sleep is fairly rare.

It is also no surprise that this happened to an intern, one of a breed who are young, energetic and only too eager to prove themselves to clinch a high-paying job when they graduate.

They typically work for only two months at a time and are paid a full-time rate, so there is less guilt on the part of some investment banks about milking the interns for all they are worth.

On top of that, they are often untrained, so they take longer to complete assignments. Almost to a man, interns arrive first in the office and leave last - even without being explicitly told to do so.

While investment banking interns likely top the overwork rankings, no one is immune to long hours, stress and exhaustion.

In Japan, where clocking overtime is a national pastime, there's even an official category for sudden work deaths: "karoshi", literally "overwork death". This is usually caused by heart attacks or strokes due to work stress.

In Singapore, a poll of 2,281 workers last year found that 83 per cent said their work stress had risen in the previous six months, while two-thirds were also labouring under greater workloads and longer hours.

It should be obvious that no job is worth your life, and many people trade in their high-flying careers for better work-life balance.

But there are also others who choose to work flat out for a few years to climb corporate ladders faster, or because they thrive under stress.

If you belong to this group, what you need is not to be told to work less, but advice on how to maximise your work without overworking: that is, how to prevent stress from turning into burnout.

Since most overworked types are too busy to give advice, I shall venture to do so. Here are some of my suggestions, culled from nearly a decade in two demanding professions where 12- or 15-hour days and working weekends are the norm.

1 Take a break

WHEN you're working on tight deadlines, it may seem impossible to spend 15 minutes on something as "unnecessary" as meals.

But endless coffee and junk food can only go so far. Even if nutrition is not a priority, a quick break once in a while should be.

Should you be so unlucky as to end up having both lunch and dinner at your desk, don't eat and work at the same time. Ten minutes chatting with your colleagues or reading the news will refresh your brain, and help you stay in touch with the rest of the world.

Sometimes you need to remind yourself that you have two functioning legs, there is a sun, fresh air smells sweet - and life is good.

The best way to do this is to take a walk now and then. Grab a coffee, stroll back more slowly from client meetings, or even just stand up and stretch at your desk.

2 Don't skimp on time with loved ones

WHEN you spend all your waking hours in the office, it's easy to lose touch with those closest to you. Some of my colleagues made it a point to meet their significant others for dinner regularly, before heading back to work at night.

My husband's office was too far from mine for nightly meals to be worth it, but he would stay up to wait no matter how late I got home. We sometimes fell asleep mid-conversation but at least we got to talk daily, kind of.

I also tried not to skip weekend meals with my family or in-laws even if I had to work both Saturdays and Sundays. It meant staying an hour longer to clear my workload, but the meals were always a powerful reminder that there was more to life than work.

There was another perk: Meals with our families were often the only chance my husband and I got to enjoy a healthy, home-cooked meal. And we didn't even have to wash up afterwards.

3 Know your limits

IT'S pointless telling a workaholic to "just say no" when his boss gives him more work. But every worker should know his physical and mental limits, and how close he is to reaching them.

For me, the crunch came when I had to have my wisdom teeth taken out. To minimise the disruption, I decided to take out all four at one go, doing so on a relatively quiet Friday evening and taking the weekend off to rest.

Swollen jaw and two-week MC notwithstanding, I was back in the office on Monday, subsisting on peanut butter smoothies and creamy soups. By Wednesday, my mouth hurt so much I could barely hold my head up.

I finally threw in the towel and went home to rest. At least there I could lie on the bed to work.

No matter how much you think you can take, there is always a limit. Very few people can work all the time without some damage, much less do so for years.

4 Keep your eye on the prize

FEW of us work hard simply because we love the drudgery of it. We do so either for money, for passion, for the experience, or to secure a better job or life.

Focusing on your long-term goal can help keep you sane through the long days and nights.

It will also sharpen your perspective on the work that you're doing, allowing you to prioritise the assignments that are most in line with your objectives and to glean the most relevant lessons from your work.

Working hard is important, but there's no point in it if you're not putting all that work towards something in the end.

fiochan@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 26, 2013

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