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Do you live to work, or work to live?

Your career; Work/life balance

British workers put in longer hours than their European counterparts, which is leading to higher stress levels and more pressure on family life.

According to research published last month by work/life balance consultant Ceridian Performance Partners, 34% of employees say they feel stressed by their workload. NCE's weekly poll put this figure at 44% following the Environment Agency report on stress (NCE last week).

The traditional image of engineers is that they are happy to put in extra hours and do not see balancing home and career as a problem. However, this week's careers clinic shows that civil engineers do feel that the long hours culture is taking its toll.

According to one senior engineer working in Germany the question of what constitutes too much work is still a matter of opinion. His family says he works too much, his boss says he does not. 'A recent review has revealed that, on average, each employee in the technical department here works one hour's unpaid overtime a day,' he tells NCE.

He is concerned that, no matter how hard they try, senior managers like himself cannot help colleagues do the impossible: 'In my experience unreasonable demands rapidly have an effect on efficiency, the atmosphere in the office and the quality of the work produced.'

In the meantime, home life is suffering. 'My normal working day, including travelling time, means that I am away from home for 14 hours, which definitely has a negative effect on my private life in the long term,' he concludes.

Others share his views. 'For several years I have been working a 60 -70 hour week,' says one NCE reader. 'The longer the hours, the more tired you get. Work suffers so you have to continue putting in the hours to achieve what managers have come to expect.'

After taking time off to get over an illness brought on by overwork, he went back determined to cut his hours but soon fell into his old habits. 'I had to cut back on hours; and when I did the world did not stop. I realised then the futility of trying to meet everyone's expectations. Needless to say though, I have since slipped back into working long hours again.'

Another middle manager who regularly works a 70-hour week says: 'I suffer from a state of permanent fatigue. I have no tea breaks and eat sandwiches at my desk.

'Before leaving the office each day I e-mail my work home so I can continue working in the evening. You become a boring person with no topic of conversation, no interests and no time for the children. I've not watched television nor read a newspaper for weeks and seldom find time to read NCE. There's no time for DIY, gardening, sport or leisure activities. Sleepless nights are frequent.'

Why are engineers on this endless treadmill? One reader puts it all down to cost-cutting. 'To win work we have to bid at ever lower prices. Then there is not the budget available for the necessary hours to do the work, nor to recruit extra staff. Most of my colleagues are in the same position.'

Even when employers are trying to regularise the situation, engineers may carry on regardless, warns another worn-out reader.

'Of my immediate colleagues, (20 out of a workforce 500), only I fill in the weekly timesheet with the actual number of hours I've worked, despite a memo from human resources requesting we all do so,' he comments. 'My director acknowledges my extra contribution with thanks and an admonishment 'not to work so hard'. My firm doesn't recognise that it is breaking the law.'

It is a bleak picture but Ceridian's Fin O'Hara says these views are beginning to be heard, even in a sector like civil engineering. 'Even the most male-dominated industries are re-thinking working hours because everyone wants to get some personal time back and improve the quality of their life,' she comments.

However, O'Hara does believe employers need to move more quickly.' You have received some very sad responses,' she says. 'Do we really want people making calculations about whether buildings will stand up when they are working 14 hours a day? There is legislation in place, but what is needed now is a culture change.'

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