Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Take a break

From last Saturday's Evening Herald...By SUSAN DALY

THIS week has been a good one in which to nursing our Celtic Tiger hangovers. The Banks report makes it hard to forget the pickle we’re in and how we got here.

But the sulphurous whiff of greedy bankers is not the only stink lingering on. It turns out that there are other bad smells hanging around the country – like the distinctive odour of a labourforce still working way too hard. (I imagine it smells like a mix of stale sweat, Lynx and crispy chicken baguettes eaten at the desk).

A report from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy revealed that one in four people are still working through the entire day without taking a break. As a result, says the report, they are left “stressed and physically unwell”.

What in the name of Michael Fingleton are we doing? This isn’t Wall Street and it certainly isn’t 2004 anymore. During the boom years, we were brainwashed into a cycle of work hard-play hard. Lunch is for wimps. Last one out of the office is a rotten egg.

Working overtime and working through breaks was expected in many companies. To refuse was to be a clockwatcher, to mark yourself out as not being a teamplayer. Work-life balance? Only losers worried about that when there was money to be made.

I remember one diligent man I knew nearly having a nervous breakdown because he’d worked eight days straight. He would barely leave his desk to heat up his lunch in the office microwave. On the eighth day, he lost the rag over something silly, face turning red, purple veins bulging out of his neck.

A cool-headed colleague walked past, paused at his desk and said: “John, I can guarantee you one thing. When you die at the age of 55, the MD of this company will not be standing over your grave saying, ‘Wasn’t John great? He never took a lunch break’.”

It made us all laugh and it defused the situation, not least because every word was true. As it turned out, despite all the hard work, all the hours spent sitting in our cars on the M50 instead of at home with our families, the economy went down the tubes anyway.

I understand that the current climate does not make it easy to take a break. With companies slashing staff numbers, remaining employees often end up doing more work for the same, or less, money. Fear makes people feel obliged to be seen as indispensable, even for the time it would take to eat a sandwich away from the computer screen.

I can’t talk. As a self-employed person, I know I work too hard and take too little time off because ultimately, I’m always living in fear of the next day and what it might not bring.

There is a lot of bitterness out there – some of it justified – towards public sector workers and their scheduled breaks, flexi-hours, set lunch times. There is anger when we hear trade unions squabbling with employers and the State over five minutes here and there.

But maybe we’re not angry with civil servants for getting a lunch break, as we are for the thankless, break-less situation many of us find ourselves in.

It’s like tuning into the news headlines from a different planet to hear the French or Italians complaining that the average lunch break in their countries has been cut down to 90 minutes. This week, some workers at the Carlsberg plant in Copenhagen walked off the job because the company decided to limit the drinking of beer to
lunchtime in the staff canteen. Until now, staff had been encouraged to help themselves throughout the working day from fridges full of free Carlsberg left around the brewery.

Free beer restricted to lunch time only? An hour and a half break at midday? Chance would be a fine thing, says you.

There is a middle ground to be found here. Surely employers should see that a rested, energetic workforce is going to be much more productive than one that is worked to the bone and on the scrapheap at 50.

We need to give ourselves a break – in every sense of the word.


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