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The pleasure of leisure

It's official; working is bad for you. At least it can be if, like so many of Britain's construction professionals, you are still embracing that most distasteful of American imports - the long hours culture - which leaves little or no time for leisure or sporting activities.

According to Professor Richard Scase of Kent University, author of the book Britain in 2001 (Capstan, £9.99), working more than 60 hours a week for just three years damages your health permanently. The message here is clear, we all need to take time out and have a life outside the workplace.

In this country, management and professional people - and this includes engineers - work longer than any other group in the world. 'Many of these individuals are self employed, own businesses or work on projects where the time frame negotiated with a client does not allow for the work to be done, ' Scase explains, 'especially when inevitable unforeseen circumstances crop up.'

If this were not stressful enough, the strategy now being adopted by many people in their 20s and 30s is, according to Scase, to 'work like hell' for 15 to 20 years and then retire early.

'People want to stop work sooner, ' he asserts. 'They know they will not survive until 65 doing the sort of jobs they do today.'

Advancing technology is putting us in the situation where we are perpetually at work, warns Tony Cassidy, a chartered health psychologist and course director at Coventry University.

'Structured leisure time is important for our physical and mental health, ' he says, 'yet organisations in the US are having to teach their employees how to handle their time off.'

Thankfully, few in Britain's civil engineering industry need help filling their free time. There is little evidence of the high risk, 'pay now - live later' approach to work described by Professor Scase and many larger firms have their own sports and social clubs.

Many are involved in the Little Britain Cup, the second largest regatta in the UK after Cowes Week. Organised by the construction industry to raise funds for the Jubilee Sailing Trust, the event provides an exhilarating experience for the staff and clients of the firms taking part.

'Our boat's usually about half staff and half clients, ' says architect Nick Colwyn Foulkes, a veteran of the Little Britain Cup and chair of next year's event.

It is great fun, he adds, as well as an opportunity for young architects to meet clients and develop interpersonal skills they are not taught at university.

Colwyn Foulkes believes in encouraging staff to pursue activities outside the work place, be it sailing, competitive mountain biking or learning another language. 'It all makes for a more interesting atmosphere in the office, ' he says.

It could also improve productivity.

'The whole of my life is dedicated to working as efficiently as possible so I can clear my desk and do other things, ' says Helen Nattrass, chief geotechnical engineer at Sir Robert McAlpine.

Nattrass is an accomplished flamenco and ballet dancer - she has an NVQ in ballet - and enjoys playing the violin (for the Canterbury Symphony Orchestra) and the harpsichord. She is also planning to cycle 500km through Egypt next year, as part of a charity bike ride .

Nattrass believes that having outside interests makes for efficient as well as contented employees. 'People without pastimes hang about the office in the evenings doing nothing, ' she says.

Employers should also guard against letting their work define them, warns Sandi Mann, a senior lecturer in occupational psychology at the University of Central Lancashire. 'As a psychologist, ' she says, 'I can't stress enough the importance of having interests outside the workplace, which leads to better and healthier workers.

'It's good to take some form of exercise, but there's nothing wrong with spending an evening in the pub.'

Key points

Continually working long hours will cause ill health in time

Forward thinking employers will encourage leisure activities outside work

Regular structured leisure is vital for a healthy life balance

Do not let your work define your personal life

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