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Can You Work Yourself To Death?

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Indolence or to use the traditional word, sloth is one of the seven deadly sins.

The exhortation is that you should dedicate your life to working hard and, of course, avoiding being seen to be lazy.

To be fair, I don't know many people who would swap the daily routine of work for a life of leisure provided that they could do the things that they really enjoy such as playing more sport or travelling widely.

However, for the vast majority this is a dream that would only come true if we came into a lot of money such as winning the lottery which, statistically, is pretty unlikely.

Therefore, we work because it pays the bills and if we are lucky allows us to do interesting things and, usually, provides a sense of camaraderie that comes with being with others in the same position.

Though few will not wish they could earn more, the reality is that money is not as important as the satisfaction that comes from a feeling of being in control through autonomy and believing that you have value in terms of what is done.

Nonetheless, we have a sense of envy of those who earn phenomenal salaries. Though those at the top level of sport or entertainment - maybe they are the same - earn huge amounts, this is usually possible only for those who are prodigiously talented.

However, we are led to believe, for those lucky enough to get into right 'trade' and are willing to work hard it is possible to earn sums that will make us pretty wealthy by average standards.

For example, merchant banks are reputed to pay salaries that enable the recipients to become millionaires; remember the current average annual income is around £27,000.

So it with interest and sadness I read about the death of a young intern at bank Merrill Lynch who is, it is believed, may have worked himself to death.

Apparently, Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old German who was working as a summer intern at Merrill Lynch, died in the shower after working for 72 hours with little or no sleep.

It must be acknowledged that no post-mortem has been carried out so it is premature to claim that Erhardt died of overwork.

However, according to a stress and sleep therapist at Capio Nightingale Hospital in Marleybone who regularly deals with bankers from the City of London, there is a culture of long hours which leads to stress, depression and, eventually, burnout.

As Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, who holds weekly group to deal with an array of problems, interns are especially prone to what she believes to be "inhumane treatment."

Dr Ramlakhan states that the vast majority of her patients (over 85%) regularly work 12 hours days and that even when they go home or are on holiday use the plethora of devices to access emails.

She points out that this she also sees this happening in law firms and in IT and technology companies.

The culture of longer and longer hours and constantly being 'on-line' is probably endemic of many other occupations. Indeed, work is becoming something where merely doing enough is not seen as sufficient; especially young people starting out who have to prove their worth.

Let's face it, we live in a 24 hour society where the lights never go out and we can, if we wish, and if electronic communication is part if the role, work constantly almost anywhere in the world. This is very different to our rural ancestors who may have achieved far more arduous labour but did so only during natural daylight.

As customers we are exhorted to demand that those who provide us with products and services are available to deal with our queries and complaints

And the ability to be seen to work hard is seen as something to be admired. Some commentators wonder whether current prime minister David Cameron spends enough time doing the job - he likes to work 'regular hours - and certainly takes plenty of holidays. He is frequently compared to his immediate processor Gordon Brown who famously started work at 5.00am and could not understand why others were not willing to dedicate equal amounts of time to work.

Whether hard work will kill you is a really moot question.

For some work can be a form of living and without are less than complete. Perhaps this is a reason why some who used to retire at a particular point in life, traditionally when they were forced to leave at state pension age, and do not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of their working life.

However, there is an increasing tendency for older people to carry on working though not at the same pace.

The thing about work is that much depends on individual preferences and within reason it should up to the person to decide how many hours they believe is sufficient. The problem is that in some professions long hours becomes the norm and those who cannot cope are seen as not being up to the job.

Trainee doctors who still work tremendously hard are seen as having an easy by those who were expected to work far longer when there was less regulation.

Crucially, we hope the person making life and death decisions is not so tired as to not be able to think properly and make rational judgements. This applies to those who carry out tasks such as driving trains, buses, lorries and airplanes where misjudgement can be potentially catastrophic.

So, the debate on the merits or otherwise of hard work will not be resolved by the outcome of the unfortunate intern who died.

I doubt that it will deter those who believe that they too can make their fortune through working incredibly long hours in merchant banking or other professions.

That said we should still be aware of the need to maintain quality of working for younger workers who given the current economic circumstance are under ever-greater pressure to perform in accordance with 'the norm'.