Throughout a lot of my life, I have struggled with fatigue. Growing up, I played a lot of sport and never really rested. I was always on the move, playing games and competing with my siblings or friends when I wasn’t at school or playing organised sport.
I remember in grade 6, begging my mum not to have to go to swimming training anymore four mornings a week before school because of how exhausted I was. She obliged, but it didn’t stop me from playing sport all weekend. I would play Basketball Friday nights, Tennis Saturday mornings, Basketball Saturday afternoons, and then train for Basketball and Volleyball all day Sunday. That’s not to mention the training and games that I also had during the week.
I would often fall asleep in class and struggled to pay attention for 50-minutes straight without getting sleepy or nodding off. It was tough to stay awake for the hour-long train commute to school too, and a few times I’d sleep through my destination and have to get off and jump on another one coming back the other way.
Once I got to university, I continued to work hard and play hard. I played sport at least five times a week. I studied full-time, worked night-shift stacking shelves at the supermarket and tried to spend time with family and friends in-between. I was productive when I needed to be thanks to energy drinks and No-Doz, but would sleep whenever and wherever I had the chance.
Things began to change after September 2013 once I started working full-time as a Clinical Psychologist. I wanted to keep pushing myself as hard as possible. Still, I realised how important it was to be able to fully concentrate on all of my sessions every day across the whole week. If I wasn’t careful, my concentration could lapse, and I might miss something important and potentially cause real harm to the clients that I was seeing.
So I tried to learn more about how to manage my fatigue. It wasn’t as easy as I imagined it would be. If you looked at the pace I was living my life at, most people would have described it unsustainable, but it was pretty enjoyable. I also liked being able to fall asleep within 5 minutes whenever I wanted to.
To begin with, I tried to do less. I played less sport, especially after I tore some ligaments in my right ankle and broke my left hand playing Basketball. But this didn’t seem to make me less tired, and sometimes the days where I did the least exercise were the ones where I felt the most tired.
I caught up with my friends less. I wouldn’t recommend this either, but it did help me to stay more on top of my workload.
I then cut down my working days from five days to four. Even with this cut-down, I was still feeling exhausted by the end of end work week and taking at least a full day to recover on the weekend before I felt normal again. Then it was only two days before it started all over again.
By mid-2018, after nearly five years of private practice work, I was burning out. I accepted the role of volunteering as a Mental Health Specialist in Vanuatu for the next two years. I packed up my life in Melbourne to head off on a new adventure.
In Vanuatu, my working hours were from 8 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday. Initially, I was feeling quite worried about this and how I would cope when I couldn’t even manage four days of 9 am to 5 pm back in Melbourne.
Vanuatu was different though. It felt a lot like living in California, which I did for my second last year of high school back in 2002-2003. The pace of life was a lot slower, and I could take the pressure off myself to always be on the go in a way that I never really felt that I could when I was living in Melbourne. Living on “island time” in Vanuatu meant that there was never a rush. And if no one else was rushing, then I didn’t need to either.
Initially, I wanted to make a good impression on my co-workers, and did work hard, but never outside of the scheduled 8 am to 5 pm working hours. I also made sure that I took my full hour for lunch every day.
Once I had settled in, I began to realise how much healthier the Ni-Vanuatu attitude to work was. Maybe not for the Government or work output, but definitely for psychological and emotional well-being. I noticed that people didn’t mind coming in late, or leaving early, especially on paydays (every second Friday). Long lunches weren’t too problematic, nor was leaving to go to the bank or pay bills or attend weddings or funerals or their kid’s performances or school assembly.
Eventually, I began to take the pressure off myself too. I tried to adapt my approach to work to what everyone else was doing there. For the first time in my working life, I was getting to the end of a workweek, and I wasn’t feeling tired or experiencing fatigue. I was coming up to a two-week holiday to return to Australia for my sister’s wedding, and I didn’t even feel like I needed a break. Compare this to how I’d been only a few years earlier, and I would fall sick as soon as I took a holiday. Like, every single time. Now I was feeling refreshed and was able to concentrate. I was not stressed or anxious about anything. Most importantly, I now had the energy to exercise and connect with the people I wanted to outside of work too. I was even falling asleep at an earlier time.
Do We Need to Work Less?
Back in the 18th Century, employees worked up to 16 hours per day. Everyone knew this was unsustainable, and that it led to severe fatigue and a horrible quality of life for most of the working class. Then in 1856, the 8 hours movement began in Victoria.
The Labor unions fought hard for the idea of 888. They wanted 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours for work, and 8 hours for family, rest and play. This statue was erected at the top end of Russell Street in Melbourne in 1903, meaning that they had achieved this goal for most people sometime between 1856 and 1903 in Victoria.
In the US, the railroad workers began to work eight-hour shifts in 1916. Ford Motor Company followed suit in 1926 when they cut the working hours of their employees to 8 hours per day while doubling wages. The reduced work hours and better pay led to a happier and more committed workforce, and productivity increased. More leisure time and money also led to more workers buying more stuff (including Ford cars), which the government realised was better for raising GDP. Other companies also began to realise that workers were more focused and productive when they worked less. An eight-hour workday subsequently became the new norm.
Since then, the working hours have begun to creep back up again, especially in the US. Among people employed full-time, the average employee works 47 hours per week. 40% of full-time employees now work over 50-hours per week, with only 8% working less than 40 hours. So much for 8-hour workdays being the standard.
The Negative Consequences of Long Work Hours
Research has shown:
- Working more than 10 hours per day can increase your risk of cardiovascular issues by 60%
- Regularly working more than 10 hours a day can also increase your risk of stroke by 29%.
- Working more than 11 hours of overtime a week leads to increased depression risk.
- Working 12 hours days increases your risk of making mistakes at work by 23%.
- In companies where the average weekly work time is under 43.5 hours per week, barely any fatigue-related problems are found.
- In companies where the average weekly work time is between 43.5 hours and 46 hours, minor fatigue problems are detected.
- In companies where the average weekly work time is over 46.5 hours, severe fatigue-related issues are seen.
- The rate of relationship problems in those working 50-60 hours per week is 10%
- The percentage of relationship problems in those working more than 60 hours per week is 30%.
- Long working hours are linked to poorer mental health and sleep quality.
- Long working hours are also linked with increased smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and weight gain.
- Long working hours are related to lower job performance, as well as less job satisfaction and lower overall life satisfaction.
What if We Did Work Less?
The above infographic by Ohio University highlights why we need to work less. If the top 10% of employees in terms of productivity work in 52-minute blocks followed by 15- to 20-minute breaks, they can only do seven 52-minute work block in a day. That is 7 x 52 = 364 minutes of work per day. That means we really shouldn’t be putting in more than 6 hours and 4 minutes of work per day.
We also should be taking 1 hour and 56 minutes of breaks spread out across the day if we want to be at our most productive too. That’s six breaks that are 19 minutes and 20 seconds long, or five 15-minute breaks and one 41 -minute lunch break. Like they say in the infographic, eight-hour days are only productive when we take sufficient breaks, and few people do.
An alternative for the people or organisations that don’t want to take regular breaks is a shorter workday. The average person is only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes every day. What do you think would happen if we reduced the workday to only 6-hours per day and paid people the same amount?
For a 6-hour workday to be effective, it would be necessary for companies to make it harder for their employees to waste time. Just putting a block on news websites and social media sites would give the average person 1 hour and 49 minutes of their typical workday back. With the extra time after work, these employees could check the news and social media then if they wanted to. If the average employee is 20% happier and healthier with six-hour workdays, they are going to be less likely to look for other jobs too.
Microsoft has also recently experimented with four-day work-weeks in Japan. When workers took the Friday as well as the weekend off, productivity went up 40%. Only 10% of the staff who tried this weren’t more productive overall. They also cut meeting times down to a maximum of 30-minutes each. I’m sure that this helped as well.
When other companies have tried four-day work-weeks, they manage to produce 25% more output with the same size staff. They also find it easier to fill vacant positions when they arise, as more people are enticed by the four-day-a-week full-time job than a typical five-day-a-week role.
Since coming back to Melbourne and returning to full-time work, I have noticed that a lot of my stress and fatigue has returned. Finding the right work/life balance isn’t easy, especially with all of the uncertainty and anxiety created by the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m grateful to have full-time work doing what I love to do, but working in a way that isn’t harmful to my health and well-being is still a work in progress for me.
However you decide to manage your workload, please understand that working long hours without regular breaks is not sustainable. We can address this by working fewer hours in a day or fewer days in a week. Or we can merely get up from the desk and walk around a bit more when you notice that your productivity and energy levels are dropping. Getting outside for lunch and away from screens can also help. As can taking some pressure off of ourselves.
Working hard and being busy are still seen as status symbols in Western society on too frequent a basis. Stepping out of this culture and into “island time” for 20 months was one of the best things I could have done for my fatigue, happiness and overall well-being.
The biggest question I still have is whether or not we can learn from our experiences and from what the research says. It seems counter-intuitive, but working less could help us to be a healthier, happier and more productive society going forward. We just need COVID-19 to go away so that we can enjoy the free time we have doing the things we enjoy and connecting with the people we love.