Musings on a 40 hour week

Curled up on the couch with a massive cup of coffee, I am wrapping up one of the most horrific weeks since starting work. Having to deal with between 30 and 40 newly admitted patients daily, my pager going off every 5 minutes (god, I hate that sound), I’m on call tonight (please please please do not call me to rechart meds at 2am) and not having seen sunlight since last weekend makes me count the days (14…) till my trip to the US to AHS12.

The tension in the hospital is almost palpable by the end of the week. The conversations are shorter, comments are snarkier and the only smiles you see is when there is the obligatory Friday junk food fest is involved. Somebody is leaving floor 1 for floor 2 so we all have to subject our bodies to a sugar coma to honour this momentous occasion. Maybe this will help us survive the end of the week without killing someone. By the way, in medicine this is not a metaphor.

Child laborers in a coal mine. Source: The History Place photograph of American child labourer from 1908-1912 by Lewis Hine

Let’s talk working hours. I want to know what genius came up with a 40hr working week.  I am not that strong in history but I grew up in the Soviet Russia and the 8 hr day was celebrated a source of pride and a supreme achievement by unions and blue collar workers. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th century had a lot to answer for with explosion of factory-based manufacturing and resulting insane working hours. The British Factory Act of 1833 went soft and regulated child labour, limiting the work day of 14-18 year olds to 12hrs and 9-13 yo to 8 hrs. They were so concerned with kids’ education that they told under 9s to stay at school. In comparison to those conditions my working week seems like a walk in the park. Our civilised society is way more civilised nowadays and we should be grateful, right?

Well, actually, who says that a 40hr week is evolutionary appropriate at all? In 1966 an anthropologist by the name of Marshall Sahlins wrote “Notes on the Original Affluent Society” in which he described the lifestyle of modern and ancient hunter-gatherers, estimating their work day to be between 3-5 hrs to the total of 14-20hr working week. Closer to home, Jamie Scott wrote a nice report on the lifestyle of Vanuatu and he also mentioned that the villagers there seemed to have a lot more leisure and play time.

Now I am far from an expert on anthropology and by no means advocate discarding our society, culture and coffee machines to go live in the bush and eat ‘roos or whatever you can catch in your part of the world. But, dayam, a 20hr week sounds way more attractive than a 70 hr limit for hospital doctors recommended by the Australian Medical Association (which is successfully circumvented by hospitals and doctors themselves).

For those interested in an overview of the working conditions of Aussie doctors-in-training (or hospital residents and registrars) read this report on safe working hours from Andrew Lewis, an industrial relations advisor for AMA. Good thing they got a non-doctor to write it. Because doctors are masters at bitching about  their lack of sleep, nutritious food and any resemblance of personal life. However, that whining tends to come with a whiff of hidden pride. The expectations of our seniors (“back in my days we slept in the elevators”), peers and patients make this screwed up lifestyle “a rite of passage.”

Of course, doctors and nurses don’t have a monopoly on insane working conditions. But the media prefers juicy stories of sleepy surgeons armed with a scalpel than  tired cranky lawyers (armed with a Monblanc pen?). The talk inevitably becomes a tad hysterical as it turns to the risk to the community: “jeopardising patients’ safety… Impaired judgement…”  Fair enough, I say. I’d be worried too if I knew that a guy who is about to do a lumbar puncture on my daughter has been working for the last 17hrs. Apparently being awake (not just working, but AWAKE) for 18 hrs is comparable to a blood alcohol level of 0.05. Cool, I can come to work after a bottle of Shiraz and nobody will notice anything different.

Still, forgive me if I am more interested how this lifestyle is affecting my body and my mind. We all know it’s bad but how bad? Can you suck it up for a few years and hope to repair the damage when you have the money to afford holidays in the Pacific and a personal chef? Or is it something that we can mitigate by sleeping in till 8am on the weekend (oh, the luxury!)?

Not a place to be when you are stressed…

Here are some studies that I personally found quite interesting.

1. Acute sleep deprivation resulted in increased hunger and the activation of anterior cingulate gyrus reflected hedonic stimuli in the absence of fasting blood glucose changes. In other words, if you are sleep deprived, those cookies in the jar will call your name with an irresistible siren song. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22259064?dopt=Abstract

2. Adults working more than 40hrs a week were 5 times more likely to have suboptimal glycemic control as measured by HbA1C >= 7% than those who worked 20hrs or under. So if your diabetic or pre-diabetic your working hours alone will make your doctor frown and reach for the script pad. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21246586?dopt=Citation

3. An observational study of nearly 17000 Australian full time workers looked at the relationship between working hours and increased BMI. They found that the relationship between long hours and obesity seemed to be mediated by the lack of sleep. This might make you think that it is possible to mitigate the effects of long hours by just increasing your sleep time however…

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20734126?dopt=Citation

4. …a study of Japanese white collar workers found that longer working hours had a negative effect on total sleep hours, sleep efficiency and daytime dysfunction. The effect was noticeable at 50hrs a week and the more hours they worked the worse their sleep quality was rated.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20561174?dopt=Citation

Just a note, the whole patronising “Just sleep more” really tends to push my buttons. It’s a bit like “Just eat less and move more” in its sheer unhelpfulness. Do we really think that those poor buggers who lie in bed for hours struggling to nod off because they like it? You can’t get that deep recovery sleep by willpower alone. Try telling any doctor on call that they should stop tossing and turning and get back to their restorative snooze… with a pager next to their ear.

5. Markers of oxidative stress were increased after a 16hr shift in medical residents and an 8 hr shift non-healthcare workers (so once again, you don’t get a free pass if you are in another field). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20811270?dopt=Citation

6. Psychological stress has been found to cause very real physiological phenomena contributing to many diseases. This excellent review of the role of stress in the gut disorders concluded: http://www.jpp.krakow.pl/journal/archive/12_11/pdf/591_12_11_article.pdf

From Konturek et al ” Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options”

“1) exposure to stress (especially chronic stress) is a major risk factor in the pathogenesis of different diseases of gastrointestinal tract including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcer, functional dyspepsia, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel disease (IBS), and other functional disorders of GI tract;

2) the dysregulation of brain-gut-axis plays a central role in the pathogenesis of stress- induced diseases;  

3) Stress increases intestinal permeability, visceral sensitivity, alteration in GI-motility and leads to profound mast cell activation resulting in release of many proinflammatory mediators

These articles are just a few in a sea of plenty. The scientific evidence is pretty conclusive and pretty overwhelming. Long hours = bad, psychological stress = very bad, lack of sleep = very very bad.

So it’s kind of bewildering that we choose to bury our heads in the sand and carry on with a stiff upper lip. Good luck repairing your leaky gut and undoing the oxidative damage with your superhuman willpower. I’m not suggesting that you should give up your career and go all hippie, greeting sunrise in the nude and weaving loin cloths out of bush plants. Sometimes the acknowledgment that this is not just in your head, but in your gut, your nervous, endocrine, immune and cardiovascular systems, can go a long way.