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Exhaustion: the modern malady

By Brigid Delaney
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Is work exhausting us in a way it never did before?

Two things happened in one day that made me wonder. First, my new housemate got home just before midnight:

"Did you have a nice night out?" I asked.

"Oh no -- I didn't go out," he replied. "I've been at work since 8 a.m."

These sorts of hours are normal in the banking industry, he explains. Also, don't worry about stocking up on extra food he says; "I have breakfast, lunch and dinner at work."

That afternoon I visit a physiotherapist. My neck is so sore that it's hard to turn my head. It could be the way I'm sitting, I say. Or the fact that I rarely take breaks, or that my job doesn't take me out of the office anymore.

The physio nods. She's heard it all before. She tells me the incidents of neck and pain in office workers has soared in the past 2 years.

"Something's going on in the workforce that hasn't happened before and its making people sick," she says.

We discuss the probable causes: a move to a 24/7 work culture, more time spent at our desks due to over-reliance on email and a more contract based, short term work force that feel insecure in the workplace -- and thus less likely to take breaks.

"Everyone's also a lot more exhausted," she says.

Social change is easy to recognize in retrospect but in the thick of this revolution of how we work, it's hard to know what the fall out will be. Globalization, new technology and the relaxation of labour laws have lead to changes in how we work. These changes in turn impact on our health and not always for the best.

Last year the Observer newspaper in the UK reported on the exhaustion epidemic, saying feeling tired constantly was no longer the burden of working mothers.

The article said working culture and 'just keeping up' with our normal workload was leaving us exhausted, stressed and leading lives that lacked balance.

They reported on a survey commissioned by Legal & General which found that 42 percent of the 5,000 people asked said that lack of sleep was their biggest health concern, followed by 34 percent worrying about low-level, general fatigue.

More than a quarter said they were stressed and another quarter admitted to depression. Chartered Management Institute, whose "Quality of Working Life" report showed that more than half of us experience feelings of constant tiredness at work and even more of us suffer from insomnia.

Globalization, technology and the declining power unionized workforces are all social factors contributing to the feeling that work is overwhelming and never ending. It's a Sisyphean task that promises only fleeting satisfaction because nothing ever seems quite complete.

E-mail keeps us at our desks longer, BlackBerrys may free us from our desks, but the payoff is appalling for workers. BlackBerrys tie us to work 24/7. With a BlackBerry there is no such thing as downtime.

Globalization has meant many workers particularly in finance, the media and law work across time zones. In this case, exhaustion is a very real product of the way work is now structured.

Deals done with Hong Kong are signed off at 2 a.m. London time. Deals structured in New York are signed off with the London office in the dark while the city that never sleeps, sleeps.

At Soma Health Spa in Kensington, Carolan Brown, the managing director, has noticed.

"In the city, people are on the go for longer periods. They don't sleep as well because of stress and noise pollution."

They come in for a massage to relax but even their choice of massage has a degree of self-flagellation in it -- they request hard massages when "they should be going for something relaxing." Could it be that we are scared of switching off?

Richard Sennett in his book "The Corrosion of Character" discusses how the growing insecurity of work puts pressure on us to work harder. We are motivated by fear -- not reward.

The result is a fraying on our health. There is not an out and out breakdown, where we are carried from the office to be confined for months to our beds to rest -- instead work the modern way is a series of little deaths.

We become progressively more and more tired, we deny ourselves recovery time and the exhaustion each week etches itself a bit deeper.

Ben, a 30-year-old journalist from London, does shift work and says he regularly only sleeps 6 or 7 hours a night. The result, he says, has left him feeling "constantly tired" as if he is never quite "on." Recovery takes place on the weekends -- but this is also when Ben socializes so "there is the constant tussle between my need to go out and get hammered and get about 12 hours sleep."

Sharachari Maitreyabandhu, who runs meditation workshops at the London Buddhist Center, has noticed an increase in increasingly exhausted people joining the beginners' classes. Some only make it part way through before falling asleep.

He says, "Modern life is incredibly complicated and fast -- that has a very stressful effect on the mind and body and people's quality of life diminishes. People are really busy -- they might be well off but they are unhappy."

Stephanie Driver, naturopath and manager at Jurlique Day Spa, agrees. She sees a lot of clients who suffer from exhaustion and stress.

"There are loads of complaints that are linked to stress and exhaustion -- a good 70 to 80 percent of people that I see," she says.

As well as prescribing treatments, Driver tries to look at the causes of exhaustion and advises clients to make subtle lifestyle adjustments.

"Take time out for yourself in the evening. Lots of people have a glass of wine in the evenings, but I think this causes a lot of problems. Try having a hit bath with lavender or listening to music. I advise people to try and make sure they have time for themselves. Maybe take the phone off the hook for a couple of hours."

Maitreyabandhu advises to switch off the TV even if it's just for one night.

Carolan Brown of Soma says, "We've stopped relaxing. We don't even know how to completely switch off. People work longer and longer hours and then there's the commute and so there's built-up rage. People get home and they are angry."

To overcome exhaustion she suggests being a little kinder to yourself.

"Have a relaxation massage, do pilates, create a space between home and the office where you can unwind. We know the causes of exhaustion, to be honest. Unless you change your lifestyle, there's not a pill to take to get rid of the exhaustion."

The meditation, massage and hot baths in the evening may dim the effects of exhaustion, but they won't remove the brute cause -- work. Until we change the way we work, and lower expectations of ourselves and others in the workplace, we will be forever hostage to an unrealistic set of demands on our bodies. The current thrum of exhaustion, always in the background, will start to take a serious toll on our health and well-being.

We'll drink more, be too tired to exercise, and not give our bodies time enough to recover from colds and flus. It seems that nothing short of another revolution in technology, in the way we work, and the way we re-organize our lives will free us from the ever-present feeling of fatigue.


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