Overtime’s True Cost: Fires and Addicts

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It was in the north – swamp country, but the forests were little more than books of green matchsticks drying in the relentless summer sun. After a long, hot day taking shelter under the shade of our helicopter, waiting and waiting for a call to action, we would fly back to camp, and hope to watch heavy storms pass overhead in the blue-grey night skies, grins as wide as the prairies on our faces. Storms meant lightning, lightning meant fire and lots of it, and fire meant one thing: overtime.

It was about seven years ago, and I was a wildland firefighter, living and working “in the boonies” of northern Alberta each summer to pay for my university education. It was a job that I have often described as being 90% boredom, and 10% excitement. It was also a job that paid very differently, depending on the severity of the fire season. There was nothing special about the wage, especially considering the physically demanding nature of the work. There was, however, a significant potential to find yourself in a situation demanding long, continuous hours, and significant overtime. Fires, after all, don’t just work from 9 to 5.

On several occasions, I can fondly remember taking off in our helicopter after receiving a dispatch in the late morning, and immediately spotting several plumes of wood smoke, it’s distinctive blue-ish colour clearly visible from dozens of miles away. Our day would be spent extinguishing one or more of these fires, and when we were ready to head back to camp in the late evening, boots squishy with the swampy waters of the muskeg, faces and coveralls completely blackened with soot, we would take off only to discover another lightning-struck tree smoking away in the distance. Because our helicopters could only legally fly until an hour after sundown (due to visibility), we would be forced to land in the bush and spend our night there with the fire, while our pilot flew back to the comforts of the camp, ready to pick us up the next day.

You might think that we would lament having to spend a miserable night in the middle of nowhere without so much as a tent for shelter, already cold, soaking wet, exhausted, and hungry. To some extent, you’d be right: all you really want in that situation is a shower and a warm bed, not to be struggling to sleep on the forest floor with only shivering cold and clouds of mosquitoes for company. However, something bigger would always be on our minds in these situations: boy, were we getting a lot of overtime.

At the time, my relationship with working long hours was a good one. After all, there’s nothing much to do when you’re living in the middle of nowhere. But somewhere, Probably in the midst of the work I was doing in restaurant kitchens, overtime and I had a long and messy breakup.

In the past week I’ve been reading a lot about hours worked and its relationship to mental health and productivity. In what should come as no surprise, studies are showing pretty consistently that the more extreme your quantity of hours worked per day, the worse outcomes you experience. Working eleven or more hours a day doubles your risk for a major depressive episode, for example.

Still, we live in a culture that equates quantity of work with “hard workingness.” Some unseen force drives us to make significant sacrifices in other areas of their lives in order to spend more time at work, even if that hasn’t been shown to have any cumulative benefit to anyone – workers especially, but companies as well (just look up how much productivity in terms of revenue is lost every year in Canada due to mental health leaves).

If we were spending that much time doing anything else, with those kinds of consequences, people would be mobilizing en masse to stop it. Something about careers makes this collective behaviour okay, however. We act like addicts – in spite of clear evidence that our behaviour is damaging us, we continue to do it because of perceived short term reward.

It’s time for an intervention. It’s time to demand something different. It’s time to come around to the fact that our mental health is inseparable from – and equally as important as – our physical health.

It’s hot and dry out there, and it only takes one lightning strike to set the forest ablaze. And all the overtime in the world won’t put it out.

*Cross-posted at the Career Services Informer.