Skipping lunch, working late and checking e-mails at home are now the norm for many of us - but can lowering the tempo actually make you more productive? Sally O'Reillyfinds out.
EVER THOUGHT that going slowly at work could help you get more done? No, me neither. We live in a hectic, 24/7 society, full of power-walking workaholics, where Madonna sleeps with a BlackBerry under her pillow and slowing down is for losers.
One recent survey by the consumer research firm OTX found that many of us use high-tech gadgets to get 31 hours of work out of a 24-hour day - surely no mean feat.
And with smarter phones in the pipeline, we may be able to add another couple of hours to that total. Achieving this might include driving with a Bluetooth earpiece so we can have a conference call while keeping one ear on the radio - and checking the satnav as we go.
So what could be less relevant to the working day than the "slow" movement? This came into being in Italy 20 years ago, when fast-food chain McDonald's tried to introduce Big Macs to the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. From this notion sprang the wider "slow" movement, which now includes slow travel, slow shopping and even slow design. But slow working? I don't think so. Call me old fashioned, but that used to be called "going on strike".
In Britain, it is claimed that workers put in the longest hours in Europe, eat the most ready meals and even drink faster than their neighbours. Full-on is the way they like it. What's more, the average British boss is unlikely to warm to employees who suddenly start taking two hours for lunch.
However, according to the experts, we're not talking laziness here, but strategies for survival.
"Slow is very important in psychology in general," says Dr Gail Kinman, a reader in occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire. "It gives you time for recovery from stress. Slowing down means you have time to let your body and mind get back to the baseline.
"If you don't, there is more wear and tear on your cardiovascular system. And, eventually, not taking time to do this will have a negative effect on your immune system. Your long-term health may be at risk and you're more likely to burn out early.
"We see this in football managers and stock exchange dealers."
What's more, chasing around yelling "I need this yesterday!" isn't even efficient. We need to pace ourselves and give ourselves time to think clearly.
A study carried out at the University of Michigan has found that, because the human brain needs time to shift gears between tasks, we need to do one thing at a time.
The more switching back and forth we do - between, say, talking on the phone, scanning e-mails and thinking about the next meeting - the less impressive our performance will be. And high performance, not long hours, is what employers are looking for.
Kinman points out that the "24/7" philosophy is partly self-inflicted. Just because supermarkets are open 24 hours a day, it doesn't mean we have to Google in the small hours.
"A lot is the pressure we put on ourselves," she says. "In the past you would write a letter, get it typed up, then post it. When you had a reply, a few days later, you would think about it before responding.
"Now we expect ourselves to be in constant communication with others. You need to ask yourself: what do I expect of other people? And what do they expect of me? If you want a nice, long career, get into some good habits now."
Crikey. I decide that - for the purposes of this article - I would put in one day of slow working. But can I really break with my default style of getting things done - which involves logging on to my e-mails at 6am, tapping away at my PC till my 10-minute lunchbreak, then zapping through the afternoon powered by caffeine and carbs?
So I take the chilled approach, seeking slow experts on the web for an hour, then relaxing with some yoga moves. Instead of hunching over the keyboard, I stand up, take a deep breath and go into dog pose. Head down, bottom in the air, tuning into the eternal verities. This makes me feel dizzy, so I resort to a huddled foetal position on the floor. Then my e-mail pings.
It is Geir Bethelsen, creator of the World Institute of Slowness, who has responded to my request in about 20 minutes. He is certainly quick for a slowness guru. He stresses that slow working doesn't just mean making time to relax - the key is to use your time to relate to colleagues.
Bethelsen cites the following "10 commandments for workplace slow": Speak to people; smile; call people by name; be friendly and helpful; be sincere; be really interested in people; be generous with praise; be careful with the feelings of others; respect their opinions; and always be ready to help.
But getting in the right frame of mind is important. "Each morning, sit down doing nothing or take a short walk, and think about what you want to accomplish that day," he says. "And in the evening, use 10 minutes to think about what you achieved - and the high point of the day."
Encouraged by this thought, I take another break and go out for a skinny cappuccino. Time to consider the bigger picture - think about what this article is really trying to achieve. But the world is against me. There's a huge queue in the cafe, they've run out of skimmed milk, and hordes of yummy-mummies are trilling at each other. I should have stayed in with a teabag.
Back at my desk, I am seriously frazzled, my inbox is full and I've had enough of slow working to last a lifetime.
Fortunately, another time-efficient expert on slow working is on the line. Christopher Richards has set up a US website - slowdownnow.org - dedicated to slow working. He points out that people working in an office need to think about whether they want to work at high speed, or whether they have a choice.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way out. Just slumping at your desk being laid back will make everyone hate you. The real answer is to redesign your working life.
"My interest is time poverty," he says. "In America, the anti-joy, puritan work ethic is strong. Hard work is necessary, but it is not a virtue in itself. We can either use technology or let it use us - and this takes a certain amount of self knowledge and clarification about our values."
Richards believes we need to take a hard look at what we want work to do for us. "In a work hierarchy, those at the bottom are powerless," he says. "Debt means wage slavery. The way out is personal responsibility, of saving and only spending what you have. If you want more time, you may have to give up a shopping habit."
So there you have it. Slow working means renegotiating your relationship with money, not coming in late telling your colleagues to chill. Looks like my days as a stress-junkie aren't quite over yet.
Longer working hours: more time for stress
People in Ireland are working harder than they were this time last year and an occupational therapist has warned that these individuals must find time to have a good balance of work and relaxation in their lives.
A new report from the Central Statistics Office shows that although the economic boom may have died down in recent times, Irish people are putting in longer hours and earning more for their labours.
The new statistics show the average industrial week has increased, with workers now putting in some 37.9 hours each week.
Donal Cassidy of the Association of Occupational Therapists of Ireland says people don't realise the importance of the work-life balance, which has a big impact on their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
"Increased hours and travel times and the general pace of modern life have put people under strain," he says. "The increasing use of new technology and media to assist us in our work can affect our stress level.
"Things like people using BlackBerrys to check e-mail have all resulted in an increase in the number of contacts people have in the day, which shortens the timeframe to complete tasks. This results in increased stress levels," he says.
Occupational therapists stress the need for both physical and social activity and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and encourage individuals with busy working schedules to make sure they engage in leisure activities outside work.
Cassidy says it is evident a lot of people are feeling the strain because the number of stress-related sick days have increased.
"Work-related stress is not just a factor for the individual to consider, employers should consider factoring in leisure time in their staff's day to address these problems.
"It is in their benefit because stress results in a decrease in motivation and productivity and an increase in burnout.
"People need to consider the long-term impact on the individual instead of always focusing on short-term gain," he says.
Tony Briscoe, head of health safety with Ibec, says work-life balance is important and that stress is not something employers can protect from as people have different ways of coping.
"A lot of stress is not solely work related and often come from other things in life like relationships and financial concerns," he says. "For an employer, job fit should be important and they must use communication and support to help ensure their employees are in a good mental position," he says.