The debate over who puts in the longest hours is set to be stoked by new research revealing which Midland professionals are most likely to be burning the midnight oil.

The region’s financial risk professionals have emerged as the hardest grafters – whereas perhaps unsurprisingly public sector workers and secretaries enjoy the best work/life balance.

Midland lawyers and HR professionals are also in the top three of the professions with their nose to the grindstone for the largest part of their waking life.

Alongside marketing professionals, lawyers are also most likely to work weekends, according to research by recruitment firm Robert Walters.

Thirty one per cent of risk professionals, 30 per cent of lawyers and 26 per cent of HR professionals claim to put in more than 50 hours a week, whereas only seven per cent of Midland public sector workers do the same, the survey found.

Accountants hover in the middle – 80 per cent work less than 50 hours with around half working between 40 and 50 hours.

The survey also shows that Midland professionals have a better work/life balance than those working in the South-east – where 18 per cent regularly work 50 plus hours compared to eight per cent overall in the Midlands.

Sydney Mitchell partner and president of Birmingham Law Society Dean Parnell said he wasn’t surprised that lawyers worked some of the longest hours in the region.

The downturn has also exacerbated the long hours culture.

“I think it would be unfair to say that law firms are cracking the whip and making people work longer,” Mr Parnell said.

“It’s more a case that it is an incredibly competitive environment where people need to show they are better than their colleagues because job security isn’t there any more.

“I’ve been at firms where people have been working flat out, sometimes unnecessarily, but they feel they have to prove their worth to the firm.

‘‘Often it’s a lack of communication from up top to junior members saying ‘go home and have a life.”

But he said the legal sector was becoming increasingly aware of the demands it puts on lawyers.

“I think the profession is now recognising the need to try and achieve more of a work/life balance,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve got it right but it’s something senior managers in law firms are aware of.”

Richard Bailey, director of the Birmingham office of Robert Walters, said although risk professionals topped the longest hours table, it was a relatively small group compared to other groups like lawyers and HR people, so that may have skewed the results.

Mr Bailey said HR professionals had had a tough time during the recession and subsequent faltering recovery, with many companies currently operating with a reduced human resources department.

“For every business, areas such as human resources are a cost to their business,” he said.

“HR professionals have been asked to work exceptionally hard – whether it be redundancy processes or in other cases a spike in hiring.

“Hiring an additional HR person has not been the top of the priority list and instead people have been asked to work that little bit harder.”

Meanwhile the findings do little to dismantle the long-held belief that those in the commercial sector work harder than those on the public payroll.

Mr Bailey rejected the argument that public sector professionals earn less in general than those in the private sector. “Obviously the higher salary bandings normally exist within the private sector – but there are some very well-paid public sector workers,” he said.

“In the public sector there are more likely to be overtime opportunities.

“Although there may be a slight differential between the public and private sector at a middle banding, it’s more likely that public sector employees will be entitled to an overtime rate so it does even itself out.”

Mr Bailey said recruiters had seen a change in culture over the last few years, with firms realising that offering things like flexible working were becoming as important to consider as pay.

“Employers have certainly offered greater work/life balance options to their employees since the recession hit.

"A number of our jobseekers are looking for not only salary benefits but also for good work/life balance options and employers that are offering those options have been very successful in hiring.”