A recent Huffington Post article highlights the pitfalls of too little sleep. Of course the dangers of insufficient rest ought to be obvious to us since sleep is the time when our bodies (and minds) repair themselves. Too little sleep = inadequate repairs. One of many sleep research findings is that failure to achieve sufficient rest correlates with aggressive breast cancer. Other research has established that women who work night shifts have a higher incidence of breast cancer than women who work more conventional hours.
For decades I was up at 5am to travel for 3 hours before working a ten or twelve hour day. I spent many years on-call, acting as the senior manager if something should go wrong – a systems or security incident. Gas leaks, data centre fires and floods, weekend and overnight disaster recovery tests, denial of service attacks, customer security incidents and an impossible workload have all had a part to play in a pattern of sleep that at times barely scraped five hours per night. One particularly difficult working environment saw me travelling regularly in the evenings and at weekends whilst also fielding numerous out of hours calls. Aside from the fact that I looked like a ghost most of the time no-one batted an eyelid – the environment was tough and those who worked there were expected to be tough enough to cope with it.
I will never know if insane working hours, lack of sleep and living on adrenaline for fifteen years acted as a catalyst for some inherited genetic anomalies. The force (of breast cancer) is strong in my female bloodline; my relatives were all exceptionally hard-working women before they were afflicted. Maybe long hours and too little rest triggered irreparable damage in their DNA too. I know that, like me, some of these women felt no choice but to go the extra mile if they wanted to succeed in their careers as well as having families and successfully running a home.
Fewer women are taking up computing and IT these days. Girls are stepping away from computer science degrees and many don’t see technology as an interesting or rewarding career option. Its a shame but I’m not surprised. Forging a career in this discipline still seems to call for antisocial hours, the ability to cope with a ridiculous workload and a need for women to prove themselves worthy every step of the way. I wonder if men going into careers nursing or social care feel the same way? Whilst there are always likely to be nursing and social care jobs in this country, the same cannot be said for IT, at least not the developer and operator jobs that act as a foundation for more senior positions. Why would a young woman considering her future opt for a UK career where women are still the minority, hours are excessive and there’s every chance the work will be outsourced to Bangalore, Shanghai, Morocco or Malaysia in the next 20 years?
For me and the other women in my family who are sadly no longer with us, the point of working hard was twofold. First, to do a good job, demonstrate commitment and prove our worth. Second, but not subordinate to point one, working hard was for and in behalf of our families – to put food on the table, clothes on our children and a fire in the hearth. Hard work equalled prosperity, or at least it helped to ensure that no-one went hungry! Yet it appears the old adage “everything in moderation” may well be true. Prosperity in the sense of helping to remove hardships, create financial stability and generate a reasonable standard of living does not seem to correlate with long lifespans for the women in my family. This seems especially the case when the route to an improved standard of living involves excessive hours, shift work or irregular working patterns. In trying to ensure bills were paid it’s quite possible I and my deceased Mother, Aunt and an array of Grandmothers – including great and great-great Grans who died long before their own children reached adulthood – sealed our own fate, or at least contributed to it in some way.
I am not naïve enough to think our high work ethic is the root of the problem. My own oncologist is 99.99% certain we come from a long line of women with faulty genes. Microscopic anomalies and DNA aberrations that might be understood in a decades time, the same way BRCA is understood today following years and years of analysis. That said, recent research into the effects of insufficient sleep, shift working and so on is impossible to ignore. Women like me with a long family history of breast cancer probably need more than regular screening and self surveillance. Advice about the potential impact of excessive working hours or night shifts might go some way to help us live long and prosper. It may also help remove the sense of guilt that comes with working sensibly but not excessively and offer a route to avoid the constant self analysis as to whether we are ‘tough enough’ for the job.