Monday, June 25, 2007

Worked To Death

Hours worked annually
Click on image to enlarge
Have you noticed how much the lib media complains about our work hours? Here's one from the Gruaniad:

Work until you drop: how the long-hours culture is killing us

With the longest working week in Europe, experts say Britain's health and productivity will decline unless something is done about it

In Japan they call it karoshi and in China it is guolaosi. As yet there is no word in English for working yourself to death, but as more and more people put in longer hours and suffer more stress there may soon be.

Ronald Reagan was wrong, it seems, when he said: "Hard work never killed anyone."


In reality, of course, on 1672 hours pa, average British working hours are around mid-table, and significantly less than say the US on 1804, or Korea on 2354 (see OECD chart above and data here).

Assuming six weeks holiday pa (including public holidays), that implies a working week of 36 hours- less than 8 hours a day for a five day week.

Which hardly seems karoshi.

I'm reminded of this because the Doc has just blogged about all his whining junior colleagues and wannabe docs who complain about the hours they're expected to work while training. Doc says he "spent five precious years of his life working 100 to 120 hours a week with overtime pay rates that were derisory. It was ridiculous. Absurd. No one should have to work in that fashion. But there was an upside. Experience. Experience that benefited both doctors and patients."

Doc reckons people who want to be doctors need to recognise that's a price they have to pay. The needs of the job must come first.
But against the background of that "Killer Hours Narrative", he's naturally taken some flak (possibly exacerbated by his doubtless well-intentioned reference to more "girlies" entering the doctoring biz).
So who's right?

Certainly those junior docs are not alone. A thrusting young investment banker of my acquaintance routinely worked 18 hour days at least six days per week when he first started. And even after three years and a promotion (yes, they've given him a brush), he still works 14 hour days. And as blogged here, when he started he was on £6.73 per hour, admittedly above the minimum wage, but only just.
The thing is, there is no alternative. Fight to the death competition means the investment banks have to pay up to attract the brightest and best, and then pay them while they get trained. After which, slavery having been inconveniently abolished, they might well upsticks for a competitor. No wonder the banks work them to the edge of reason in an attempt to recoup costs.
On the other hand, just like the junior docs, the slaves get a load of experience very quickly.
Yes, in theory, you could pay them less and work them less, but then they wouldn't "qualify" until into their thirties. Not only would it take longer for the employers to get any real payback, but these ambitious driven people would get awfully frustrated. They want to start the real job as soon as possible, not spend a decade training.
Similar arguments apply across the whole range of other demanding high skill occupations, such as commercial lawyering and consultancy.
Doctors? Surely they could get Doc's desired experience over a much longer period? Especially since that might also avoid knackered inexperienced medicos doing your emergency brain op at 2.30am.
Actually, I don't know anything about doctoring so I can't comment on the technicalities. But I'm guessing most junior docs also want to start the "real" job before they have grandchildren. Plus of course, these guys are fiendishly expensive to train (each one costs us taxpayers an estimated £250 grand). So the sooner they start real work the better.
So I'm with the Doc on this one: if you want that Gruaniad work-life balance thing, you should forget investment banking.
Forget commercial law.
Forget management consultancy.
And forget doctoring.

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