Ten years ago, Catherine Salway was brand director at Virgin, jetting between LA, New York and London, earning a six-figure salary, flicking through property magazines and considering buying a larger home in west London.
By most corporate executive standards, she was living the dream: a high-flying career at a riotously successful company, accompanied by a jet-set lifestyle of copious champagne, canapés and transatlantic flights.
The trouble was, it didn’t feel as good as it seemed. “I was two stone overweight, I drank far too much, and my moods oscillated between stressed and depressed,” she says. “I was cash-rich but time-poor, rarely seeing my family and friends, eating and drinking far too much.”
After 17 years as Richard Branson’s “brand guru”, leaving Virgin was a wrench, but three years ago Catherine quit to set up her own alcohol-free bar, Redemption, in Notting Hill. “Some people think they have a book in them; I felt I had a brand in me,” she explains. This sidestep out of the corporate world transformed her health. “I had been propelled by ambition and didn’t realise just how bad the lifestyle was, until I popped out the other end.
“I haven’t had a manicure for three years, but I’m down to a healthy size 12, I book yoga into my schedule three times a week and I see my dad twice a month, instead of a few times a year,” she says. “At 42, I look and feel so much better than I did 10 years ago.”
Some of our most deeply held notions as a society are that the executive lifestyle is something to aspire to; that 75-hour working weeks are the key to success; that success equals happiness; and that money may not buy happiness, but it certainly helps.
But there is mounting evidence that the executive lifestyle is not all it is cracked up to be. Last week, a major new study showed that employees who work more than 55 hours a week have a 33 per cent increased risk of stroke, compared with co-workers who clock up 35-40 hours. “Sudden death from overwork is often caused by stroke and is believed to result from a repetitive triggering of the stress response,” wrote researchers from University College London, in the medical journal The Lancet. While they can’t state categorically that long hours cause people to have strokes, their study shows a clear link – one that gets stronger as the hours people put in get longer.
Bad news not just for employees at Amazon, whose round-the-clock culture was the subject of a New York Times exposé last week, but for everyone else in the corporate world who shrugged in recognition, rather than outrage, at revelations of the pressures of fuelling the demands of our 24/7 service culture.
Dark side to success
But the bad news continued: in the same week, researchers at the University of Surrey and Linnaeus University in Sweden warned of a “darker side” to business travel, observing that a jet-set lifestyle puts frequent flyers at risk from serious physiological, psychological, emotional and social damage. While we’re all familiar with the short-term consequences of jetlag, it seems it may also “switch off” genes linked to the immune system, raising the risk of heart attack or stroke.
“People see the glamorous side of travel, but nobody Instagrams or Facebooks those moments at 5am when you’re jetlagged, you feel sick and you’ve still got three hours to go before you can even think about getting up,” says Catherine. “And the amount of booze and food you consume really affects you, making you depressed and overweight. I’m afraid of flying, so I’d always need to have a few glasses of wine in order to stop myself panicking.”
The researchers added that feelings of loneliness and isolation are also common among people who work long hours and travel frequently. “The frequent-flyer lifestyle isn’t at all conducive to relationships,” agrees Catherine, recalling the words of her then-husband: “I only get what’s left of you when everyone else has had their bit. And that’s not much.”
“He was right,” she says. “I’d return home knackered on a Saturday after a full week of work in New York. I was good for nothing, but this was the first time he’d seen me all week.”
‘Freedom is my greatest asset’
It was after her marriage ended that Catherine realised that “freedom was my greatest asset”, and mustered the strength to leave Virgin. “It was hard to leave a high salary and security. I haven’t given myself a salary in three years, and I’m thinking about Airbnb-ing a room in my home. But I’m happier sitting uncomfortably doing something I want to do than lying in luxury doing something I don’t.”
Catherine has no regrets, but it’s a constant effort to keep a sense of perspective in such a high-octane world. “For years I dreamed about being a millionaire by the time I was 50, and now I have to get used to the fact that I will never own one of the lavish Notting Hill homes I walk past every day,” she says. “But I’m glad I recognised property one-upmanship for what it is: a dangerous addiction that robs you of your freedom.”
For many Londoners, the idea of escaping the city for a large house in the Home Counties is something to aspire to, but a recent survey by Hamptons International estate agents, using the government’s Life Satisfaction Index, rated executive commuter-belt towns such as Guildford and Brentwood as among the worst for the happiness levels. All too often, that longed-for dream home turns into a financial nightmare.
“I know so many people who stretched themselves to buy a bigger house, and then they’re slaves to a huge mortgage and a job that they are miserable in,” says Catherine.
Small surprise, then, that new research into the pressures on British women found that four in 10 “are on the brink of burnout”, with nearly half of the 5000 respondents feeling “moderately or extremely stressed”. This perhaps accounts for the fact that “women experience something like 20 to 40 per cent more mental ill-health than men,” according to Daniel Freeman, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford and co-author of The Stressed Sex.
Pushing yourself too hard
But women are also better at getting help when they’re under too much pressure. Working men, worryingly, suffer higher rates of alcoholism, drug and anger issues – figures from the Office for National Statistics show the number of men taking their own lives has reached its highest rate in more than a decade, triple the number of women, with those aged 45 to 59 most at risk.
“I see a lot of guys in their fifties within the corporate and hospitality industries, who really don’t look healthy,” says Catherine. “They’re pushing themselves so hard, and their sense of worth is tightly bound to their careers. They feel they can’t move away from this without letting their wives and families down.”
Against this backdrop, there’s a palpable sense that the current corporate landscape is unsustainable. “Since the recession, companies have got even more demanding, squeezing every last drop of blood out of the stone, and the pressure they put on employees is incredible,” says Catherine. “We’re surely headed for a burnout revolution.”
It may already have begun. ONS figures this month indicate that self-employment is higher now than at any point in the past 40 years – perhaps as a growing number of workers decide they’re sacrificing their health and relationships for insufficient reward. Particularly given that research from career website Glassdoor suggests that happiness rounds off at £55,000 ($120,820), with pay rises beyond that on a scale of diminishing returns.
Instead, the freedom to work flexibly is being prized far higher: “The way we see work is changing,” says consultant and speaker Julia Hobsbawm of Editorial Intelligence. “The big corporates are having serious difficulty recruiting the brightest and best – because these candidates are demanding life-balance packages, not just money.”
Top five ways to avoid stress
Physical activity can get you in the right state of mind to be able to identify the causes of your stress and find a solution.
Exercise won’t make your stress disappear, but it could help clear your thoughts and approach your problems calmly.
Avoid unhealthy habits
Don’t rely on alcohol, smoking and caffeine as your ways of coping.
In the long term, these crutches won’t solve your problems, they’ll just create new ones.
Help other people
Evidence shows that people who help others, through activities such as volunteering or community work, become more resilient.
If you don’t have time to volunteer, try to do someone a favour every day, however small. Favours cost nothing, and make you feel great.
Look for the positives in life, and things for which you’re grateful. Write down three things at the end of every day which went well.
If you’re naturally pessimistic you may have to work hard to change this, but it can be done.
By making a conscious effort you can train yourself to be more positive about life.
Accept the things you can’t change
It isn’t always possible to change a difficult situation.
If this proves to be the case, accept things as they are and try to concentrate on everything that you do have control over.
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 25 August 2015.