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The finance industry is known for long working hours, but coping strategies can help you stay both well and productive

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Deloitte’s global 2016 Millennial Survey shows that when salary and other financial benefits are removed from the equation, good work/life balance stands out as the primary factor when evaluating job opportunities.

But what Millennials want and what they can get is not always the same. Many struggle to find jobs that they would be entirely happy with and have to contend with working long hours. In India they put in 52 hours per week on average, more than their peers in other countries. In comparison, Millennials in China work 48 hours, in the US 45 hours, in Germany 43 hours, and in the UK 41 hours per week on average, according to a survey from ManpowerGroup.

Financial services professionals tend to work the longest hours of any profession. In the UK, they clock 47.7 hours per week on average, according to a Robert Walters survey. In some areas of finance, the working hours are even longer. For example, in investment management and banking, 10 or 12-hour shifts are not uncommon.

‘Consulting is also famous for its long hours,’ says Nadim Choudhury, head of careers and employability at the London Institute of Banking and Finance.

Accountancy jobs generally have reasonable working hours, but you may have to work longer at busy times like the tax returns season or at quarter or year-end, and also evenings and weekends to meet deadlines. The first few years can be particularly intense, especially if you combine work and study at the same time. If you have the added pressure of sitting exams, attending lectures and a long commute on top of that, your days can be very long.

‘Technological advances mean there’s also a danger of getting caught up with work at home, with most people having remote access to the office server and being contactable by email or mobile phone,’ says Barrie Kenyon, partner at accountancy firm Green & Co. He admits: ‘Never has it been easier to let work and all its stresses and strains encroach into personal life. It can be tempting to carry on with larger jobs at home or answer emails while spending time with the family.’

Impact on health

Working late on a regular basis can make you unwell, both physically and mentally. Scientific evidence suggests that working long hours for a prolonged period of time could lower your resistance to illness and increase your risk of heart problems, stomach pain, anxiety, depression, insomnia and weight gain. It could also affect your cognitive skills such as vocabulary and reasoning, and other important work-related mental activities such as planning, decision making, learning and remembering.

Spending too much time working could make you feel constantly exhausted and demotivated.

‘Professional burnout is sadly not uncommon, in large part due to the demanding corporate culture that has become endemic, particularly among large accountancy firms,’ says Leanne Spencer, burnout coach and author of Rise and Shine: Recover from burnout and get back to your best. She warns: ‘Burnout is a progressive condition which, if left unchecked and not acted upon, can result in a complete breakdown of the central nervous system. It is a very dangerous and health-span reducing condition that at best blights lives and at worst can result in loss of life.’

Spencer points out that although the signs and symptoms of burnout are often highly visible, people try to ignore them, particularly if they work in an aggressive corporate culture where any sign of strain might be perceived as a weakness or an inability to do the job. These symptoms include low mood, anger, irritability, apathy, sleep disorders, loss of appetite and weight management problems, feelings of numbness and isolation and a loss of pleasure in things that you normally enjoy.

How to cope

Technology can make our lives a misery, but it is also a great enabler. Because of it, we do not have to be chained to our office desks at all times. Deloitte’s survey shows that 67% of Millennials are already allowed to work flexible hours, while 43% can sometimes work from home or other locations where they feel most productive.

It may be worth exploring these options with your employer. More and more organisations are adapting their flexible working policies to better accommodate their employees during busy and stressful times and to give them the option to work in a way that better fits their lifestyles. ‘We have a flexible working policy which helps when tax deadlines dictate working longer hours and which makes a healthier work/life balance possible in quieter times,’ says Kenyon.

Some employers now also offer mental health and wellbeing services to their staff to help support their general welfare in the workplace. According to a survey from totaljobs, over 35% of accountancy firms offer gym membership and counselling services, around 30% provide quiet areas and actively encourage regular breaks, while a quarter of the firms also carry out staff surveys to ensure employees are not struggling at work.

However, whether or not your employer shows this level of interest in your wellbeing, you have a personal responsibility to look after yourself. Good sleep, proper nutrition and making time for non-work related activities will all help you cope and stay sane when work gets tough.

‘Getting to bed on time and at least trying to rest is imperative,’ says Spencer. ‘You need to quieten the mind and allow the body to repair itself overnight and even if you’re not sleeping well, going to bed early and just lying still can help.’

A quality bed could help you doze off, though.

‘If you sleep well, you will have more emotional energy and generally feel more positive towards work, but many people suffer poor sleep simply because they have an uncomfortable mattress,’ says Choudhury.

Smart devices in the bedroom are also to blame for poor sleep.

‘Remove them – they will interrupt your sleep – and get an old-fashioned alarm clock instead,’ says Julian Hall, emotional resilience expert at Calm People. ‘Don’t look at smartphones less than half an hour before bedtime – research has proven that the light they emit leaves us mentally agitated.’

Set yourself some ground rules around eating.

‘This might be as simple as eating one home-cooked meal a day or eating three meals a day. The important thing is that you set these rules and you follow them and that you do not avoid food altogether,’ says Spencer. She also advises limiting sugar, alcohol consumption and smoking.

Give your brain a rest from thinking about work by doing something completely non-related and creative.

‘Dealing with information and making decisions are left brain activities,’ says Hall. ‘If you immerse yourself in a creative process – if you make, design or draw something – you will get the right side of your brain involved and give the opposite side a rest.’

He also recommends… joining a choir: ‘The complete concentration on keeping in time, staying in tune and harmonising is a truly mindful practice which helps to de-stress. The second, and more powerful benefit, is the emotional experience of singing in a group. Work is often logical, rational and analytical. Singing in a choir helps us access essential emotions that we stay away from too often and for too long.’

Last updated: 16 May 2017