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Is Your Office Making You Ill?

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I'm a novelist. My office is a small room with a sofa, a constantly tempting TV ("turn me on! waste hours watching cookery shows!") and not much else. But I didn't always work in such simple surroundings. In my former life I was a lawyer in London. The law firm had a state-of-the-art gym, an on-site doctor and dentist, a canteen packed with low-fat food, and a storeroom filled with a bewildering array of ergonomic chairs. I was one of 2,000 employees, and we had every workplace perk we could ever want. But in some way, every day, the office was making us ill.

To see the truth of this you only had to visit the doctor downstairs. He came on Wednesdays, and the waiting room was always packed. There were RSI sufferers, back pain sufferers, employees with blurred vision, employees with high blood pressure, employees too stressed to eat or sleep and employees deficient in Vitamin D. There were those for whom constant sitting had brought hip trouble, shoulder trouble, bum trouble. There were people whose breathing was troubled by intensive exposure to air-conditioning and whose skin was aggravated by screen-burn and lack of sunlight. There were stories of depression and self-harm. Someone in every department was on long-term sick leave.

I lasted a few years at the law firm without seeing the in-house GP. Then, one day, I made an appointment.

"Hello, come in, what can I do for you?" the GP said. It was all one sentence, lasting half a second from start to finish.

"I'm not exactly sure," I said.

"You're not sure?"

"Um, no. Not entirely."

He looked broken-hearted. Why did God continue to send him patients like this?

"Do you have any... " He raised his eyebrows in anticipation of the next word. "Symptoms?"

"Um," I said, "I'm not, I suppose, sleeping that well?"

"Right."

"But I'm tired."

"Yes, of course."

"Why of course?"

"People who don't sleep well - they tend to get tired."

I nodded. He frowned.

"Any recent changes to routine?" he asked.

"Not really," I said. "I don't really have a routine. I work upstairs; I'm one of the commercial solicitors. Some weeks I do next to nothing. Then the next week I do 90 hours. Not that I'm complaining, it's just..."

I watched him write down "90 hours."

"This week's been a bad one," I explained. "I've been in the office until three or four a.m. every day since Saturday, then back in at eight. This morning the job I was doing finished, so I have the afternoon off, but I can't sleep. I have a new case starting Monday."

He looked at me. I had the feeling he was preparing a killer question.

"So," he eventually said. "Let me ask you: do you like your job?"

In the weeks which followed, I thought about this question a great deal. It seemed entirely from left field. Did I like my job? Who actually liked their job? Certainly I liked bits of it. I liked the people and much of the work. But I hated going three weeks without proper sleep, and being sat in the same position all day, and spending lunchtimes watching the mayonnaise from my soggy sandwich drip between the QWERTY keys. Most of us spend most of our lives at work, and each generation retires a little later than its predecessor. So why was it so baffling to be asked if I liked what I spent most of my time doing? Why was this question not already at the forefront of my mind? Why was it eclipsed by thoughts about the benefits - the salary, the pension, the bonus, the private healthcare?

I felt lucky to be well-paid, and I'd always associated workplace illness with jobs that were badly paid, where staff were not 'looked after' in any traditional sense. Jobs like staying at home writing, now I come to think of it. I didn't deserve anyone's sympathy - it was my own responsibility to weigh up the rewards of the job against the less pleasant aspects, and I was free to leave at any time. But it did interest me, the more I thought about it, that a portion of my salary consisted of a kind of 'risk money'. All of us in the office were putting ourselves at risk; we were risking our physical health, our mental health. We were frequently wandering into work in a daze, exhausted and fractious, bug-eyed on two hours sleep, hoping that we'd get the next weekend off, and in the meantime popping pills to address our various ailments.

During my final month at the firm, on my notice period, I had a conversation with a senior member of staff. She was earning somewhere north of £700,000 a year and had been for a long time. She looked depressed and tired. She said she was looking forward to retirement. 'Why not retire now?', I asked. She explained that she had children in private schools, and a big mortgage on her eight bedroom house in central London, and some refurbishment work to do on the other houses abroad... She couldn't afford to retire.

"Surely there's something you could cut back on?" I ventured.

She paused. Pursed her lips. "I suppose I could fire my wine guy..."

"Your wine guy?"

"Yeah, you know. The person who selects the wines for our cellar."

I went home to my sofa and my tempting TV.

Jonathan Lee's new novel Joy (Heinemann) is set in an office in the City of London. He's on Twitter: @JonLeeWriter