Why would any mother work an 80-hour week? These three all do – and insist their families can cope, but what price are they paying?

Why would any mother work an 80-hour week These three all do – and insist their families can cope, but what price are they paying



09:08 GMT, 12 March 2012

At two in the morning, as her family sleeps soundly, 45-year-old Miriam George slides out of the bed she shares with her husband and tiptoes into her home office. She closes the door softly, then puts on the light and switches on her computer.

Sitting in her dressing gown, mind fully engaged, she ploughs through a list of ‘urgent’ emails, writes strategy documents and creates marketing plans. Before long it’s 4am and, in two hours, she must get up to start the day properly.

Miriam lives in Leicestershire and is CEO and founder of a successful health consultancy, PDC Healthcare Ltd. The company bucked the economic downturn last year, providing jobs for more than 50 staff and turning over several million pounds. It’s a testament to Miriam’s dedication and hard work, but her 80-hour-plus week has come at a cost.

Office addicts (from left): Sally Fielding, Miriam George and Alison Henders-Green

Office addicts (from left): Alison Henders-Green, Sally Fielding and Miriam George

She suffers from neuralgia, a condition linked to stress, which causes facial pain, she’s piled on weight and has handed over all the parenting of her children Oisin, 15, Liam, 13, and Derran, seven, to her husband Paul, 45.

‘This is a sacrifice for me,’ she says, ‘but I love my job. In Paul, the children do at least have one parent who is always present for them. I get such a buzz when things are going well, and no matter how tired I am, the adrenaline kicks in once I get going.There have been many times I desperately wanted to be there for my children. But they all know how important my career is to me. As well as long days in the office, I travel to see clients, and can be away for a week at a time.’

Miriam is part of a growing breed of women workaholics who relish the prospect of an 80-hour week.

These women are often found tapping away at their laptops until the early hours, they rise before dawn, and find themselves communicating with their children and husbands via email and text messages.

As unemployment soars and the economic downturn trundles on — latest figures reveal 48,000 people lost their jobs in the three months to February and the jobless total stands at 2.7 million — growing numbers of women are working at a breakneck pace to either hang on to their jobs or keep the companies they run profitable and expanding.

Office addicts (from left): Sally Fielding, Miriam George and Alison Henders-Green

These women are often found tapping away
at their laptops until the early hours, they rise before dawn, and find
themselves communicating with their children and husbands via email and
text messages

Miriam admits her lifestyle has made her stressed and exhausted — but she is determined to put her heart and soul into the company she set up 12 years ago. ‘I have to be constantly available,’ she says. ‘I have a team of 50, including contractors, and we are busier than ever, expanding every year.’

Her husband used to work full-time in IT but since Miriam’s business has become so successful the couple have agreed he should work part-time from home to allow him to do the childcare. Paul takes the boys to school, picks them up and does the homework and bedtime routine. Miriam says her husband is used to her working hours, but they would love to have more time together.

It is a way of life that worries Dr Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at Bedfordshire University. She is researching work-related stress in women.

‘As more women run their own businesses or reach high levels of senior management, the pressure on them increases,’ she says. ‘You could argue the same applies to men, but often women face the additional pressure of home and family. Something has to give — and it could mean putting work before home or family. Many women are, by nature, perfectionists. Used to multi-tasking, they drive themselves beyond normal limits to achieve almost impossible goals.’

Ultimately, Dr Kinman says, women living like this may end up sacrificing not only their work-life balance, but their health. A U.S. study found that women find it harder to cope with the physical and emotional effects of stress than men. The study says that while men react to stress with the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism, women tend to internalise and worry over problems, which has a deeper long-term effect.

Dr Kinman says: ‘Everyone — especially working mothers — needs time for physical and psychological recovery. You have to keep yourself healthy and spend time with your family and friends with no distractions. If you don’t have that, eventually you will crash and your health will suffer.

‘The increase in technology means people are almost continually online and the natural boundaries between work and home have all but disappeared. Studies have proved that even anticipating opening an email makes your heart rate and blood pressure soar.’

In 1956, 35 per cent of women worked full or part-time. Now 65 per cent of British women do

Sally Fielding, 36, from Keswick in
the Lake District, can sympathise. She took just two days off for the
births of each of her three children — Bruno, five, Daisy, three, and
Julia, two. Sally runs her own
holiday lettings agency, Sally’s Cottages. ‘They slept at my feet in a
basket,’ she says. ‘I work from home, so I’m never not at work. I often
work at least 80 hours a week and until 10.30 every night. I don’t have a
social life and my only relaxation is ten minutes a day in the bath.’

one could ask, are these women so driven Sally says: ‘I think it’s
partly genetic. My family had a farm and a campsite, and from the age
of nine I was collecting money from the campers. A work ethic was
instilled in me — I thrive on hard work.’

Sally studied anthropology at Durham
University, then worked in the tourism industry. ‘We set up my cottage
business with an investment of 1,000 in 2003 and, last year, we turned
over 2 million. In the office, the phones constantly ring and the
emails pour in. I often work weekends, too, and I feel as if I never
stop.’ Sally’s husband Robert, 36, works for the business, too, and they
rarely have a quiet dinner together. Instead, they both work in the
office until they fall into bed, exhausted.

Robert says: ‘Occasionally, I tell Sally
she is working too hard and getting irritable. I say she needs to slow
down and take a break — but it’s virtually impossible to get her to stop
working. She’s like a whirlwind.’

Sally says: ‘My health’s OK at the moment, but I feel as if I’m pushing myself so hard to see how far I can go without breaking. We’re hoping to turn over 3 million next year and that has become my goal. I’m always working towards the next target.’

Although Sally says she has moments where she’d like to slow down, she can’t imagine herself not working. The advantages are that the couple can afford a five-bedroom farmhouse with a big garden, and lovely holidays, although Sally admits she often doesn’t know what to do with herself on holiday. ‘My brain is churning,’ she says. ‘I actually find work more relaxing than looking after the children.’

Dr Kinman says this is a situation many women find themselves in. ‘Relationships and children are much harder to control,’ she says. ‘I believe that women workaholics can use work as a way of not managing real life. With work, you know the rules, you can do it. Managing a family is much harder.’

Sally believes there is an element of truth in this. ‘I adore spending time with the children,’ she says, ‘but going back to work after being with them feels like a break.’

Lawyer Alison Henders-Green is a partner in a law firm in Cardiff. She is 44 and lives with her husband Andrew, 61, a barrister, and step-daughter Molly, 19. Alison says, ‘I often work a 12 or 14-hour day and then on Saturday I’m surrounded by books doing research. If I’m not at work, I’m usually thinking about work and my clients. Fortunately, my husband understands what I do and how driven I am.

‘I work flat-out during the day and then at home I’m often on my iPad juggling work and my responsibilities as a step-mum. Molly is old enough to look after herself, but I like to sit down and chat to her every night. I wouldn’t say my work is my life, but it comes close — I adore my job and I get a great sense of validation from it. When I win a case, I’m on top of the world, there is no better feeling.

‘My mum constantly tells me to slow down. But working is no hardship for me. I feel at my most confident in the workplace. My relaxation is yoga, which is a great stress-buster for me, and I value spending time with my husband and family so much.’

Dr Kinman recognises how important a woman’s career can be to her happiness: ‘Women who are really successful drive themselves so hard because they want to. But problems come when work overshadows everything else. In order to lead a healthy, happy life, balance is essential.’

There’s no doubt Miriam George’s family have benefited from her 80-hour weeks — last year they bought a house for cash, and have no debts or money worries. But Miriam is torn: ‘I do wonder how much longer I can keep this up and I know I need to delegate more and reduce my hours. It’s just so very hard to let go. And, to be honest, I don’t really think I want to.’