Women Say No to Extreme Work Schedules

05/01/2012 02:50 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2012

Work/life balance is something every adult strives for, but for women in highly competitive corporate positions or in charge of their own companies, clocking out before 8 p.m. is often seen as a sign of weakness. If you're not pulling late nights and sending emails at 4 a.m., you're seen as not "pulling your weight". But research shows women working long hours are at risk from serious health issues.

Long work hours have been connected to a range of physical and mental health problems, including insomnia, stress, depression, musculus-skeletal disorders, chronic infections, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and other health complaints. An American study into working hours, published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, shows that for those working 12 hours a day there is a 37% increase in risk over those working fewer hours.

And long work hours aren't necessarily any better for companies, either. Research shows that outputs are not directly related to the number of hours worked, but employees that are fatigued or working past their optimum efficiency are no more valuable than a rock on a chair.

British researchers have found women working longer hours are more at risk. Entrepreneur Lissa Cook is one of a growing number of women leaving high stress jobs to pursue their own companies. In the interview with Gaby Hinsliff for Mail Online Lissa said that after years of waking up in the early morning for a demanding job as a radio presenter and often not stopping work until midnight, serious health problems caused Lissa to question her desire to work such insane hours. She started sewing a few baby clothes for friends, and now has a waiting list for her Peak Princess line of children's clothes.

In her article, Gaby notes:

We're cracking the glass ceiling only to hit a new barrier: not just the traditionally long hours expected at the top, but a newer 'always on' culture of being available around the clock, by phone or email. And working this way doesn't just make us tired. It strikes at the heart of women's emotional lives: the time we give to our marriages, families and friends.

Lissa isn't the only woman speaking out against intense work schedules and the pressure to always be "checked-in" at the office. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg said in a recent video for that, although she leaves the office at 5:30 p.m. every night to have dinner with her family, she has only just reached a point where she's comfortable with the decision.

"I walk out of the office every day at 5:30 so I'm home for dinner with my kids at 6:00. I did that when I was at Google, I did that here, and I would say it's not until the last year, two years that I'm brave enough to talk about it publicly." Sandberg said in a video interview for

"I was showing everyone I worked for that I worked just as hard. I was getting up earlier to make sure they saw my emails at 5:30, staying up later to make sure they saw my emails late. But now I'm much more confident in where I am and so I'm able to say, 'Hey! I am leaving work at 5:30.' And I say it very publicly, both internally and externally."

While Sandberg's solution of leaving work at a specific time every night no matter what is a step in the right direction, many women seek a more drastic solution. Gaby tells a story of Sam Pearce worked in marketing until she had her first child. "It took me six years to have my daughter and I hadn't gone through all of that to hand her over to someone else." Sam tried to negotiate flexible time with her office, but found them less than accommodating, so she quit her job to start her own business.

Together with friend and fellow Mom friend Helen Woodham, Sam started Mum's The Boss, a networking site for women entrepreneurs. The site was an instant hit.

Sam and Helen expressed surprise at the number of Mum's the Boss members who have come from competitive corporate environments. They give up lucrative salaries to pursue the more risky path of entrepreneurship because it offers the freedom to fit around their lives.

Extreme work hours tend to squeeze everything else out, including time with family and friends, hobbies and travel -- activities that are normally priorities for women. Status and money are often higher priorities for men, who often don't feel dual pressure to prove themselves at work and to be a hands-on parent.

This is why many women are opting to run their own businesses. The hours might still be long, but they have the flexibility to fit their job around family life, instead of the other way around.

"There is pressure, but not the stress," says Lissa, who spends her days working on her business between playing with her kids and taking regular walks with her family across the countryside. "I'd never go back to an office full time."

While Lissa's solution is a drastic one, she -- along with high-level achievers like Sandberg --represents a new generation of women who are saying no to extreme work hours, and learning to be proud of their freedom.