Work. Work. Work. Are you a workaholic who typically logs way over 40 hours a week?
In our modern society this practice isn’t always frowned upon. In fact, a non-stop work life is like a badge of honor to many. For others, working less doesn’t feel like an option from a financial standpoint.
The high value placed on work and the money it provides begs the question: Can you work yourself to death?
A recent World Health Organization (WHO) report answers the question with a resounding yes. The report points to research that suggests working long hours is an occupational health risk that kills thousands of people each year.1
To come to this conclusion, the researchers reviewed dozens of studies on heart disease and stroke. Next, they estimated workers’ health risks based on data drawn from a variety of sources in 154 countries starting in the 1970s through 2018.
How Much Work is Too Much Work?
The report found that working more than 55 hours a week in a paid job resulted in 745,000 deaths in 2016. The researchers calculated that about 398,000 of the 2016 deaths were due to stroke, while 347,000 were from heart disease.
“Between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease due to working long hours increased by 42 percent, and from stroke by 19 percent,” the WHO reported.
In summary, those working more than 55 hours a week faced an estimated 35 percent higher risk of stroke and a 17 percent higher risk of heart disease compared to their peers working 35 to 40 hours a week.
In fact, in all three years that the study examined, researchers found working long hours led to more disease than any other occupational risk factor. Those risk factors include exposure to carcinogens and not using seatbelts for work-related driving.
Dr. Maria Neira, a director at the WHO, boiled down the findings.
“It’s time that we all, governments, employers and employees, wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death,” she said.
The authors suggest that stress and changes in behavior (unhealthy diet, poor sleep and reduced physical activity) are “conceivable” reasons why long hours have a negative impact.
Recognizing the Signs of Overwork
Almost nine percent of the global population works long hours. In 2016, 488 million folks put in 55+ hours a week. If you’re wondering if your long work hours are taking their toll on your health, Psychology Today says to watch for these signs: chronic fatigue, insomnia, forgetfulness, and increased illness.2 Other physical symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, GI tract pain, headaches, and the list goes on!
What can you do?
While it would be great if you could just quit your job, that’s simply not an option for most people. Instead, let’s turn to some sound advice from the Cleveland Clinic for combatting work burnout.3
- Employ self-care: Healthy habits such as exercise, nutrition and interpersonal connections are more important than ever. It’s also a good idea to limit your intake of sugar, processed food and alcohol.
- Set healthy limits: This one’s tricky but try to find a way to manage expectations in your workplace so that you don’t become overextended.
- Keep a healthy pace: Aim to get into a productive workflow but remember to take periodic breaks. For example, work for 30 minutes, then take a five or ten minute break.
- Take “screen breaks”: Do this at predetermined intervals so that you’re not “always on.” This is more important than ever as more people have started working from home.
- Acknowledge your value: Whether you’re a banker or a plumber, take notice of how your work improves the world you live in, or makes other people’s lives better.
This study drives home the point that avoiding long periods of overwork is imperative to our good health and longevity.
Or as WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reminds us, “no job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
In my early career I held a series of jobs where my employers expected long hours and rewarded employees accordingly, regardless of actual performance. Mediocre employees who put in 12-hour days were praised, outstanding employees who didn’t were led to understand – sometimes not too subtly – that they were out of favor. It was nutty, but there you are. The company culture at these firms was workaholic.
High-powered law firms, financial companies, and residency programs for young doctors are notorious for expecting new associates to work as much as 80 hours a week. It’s a sort of frat house initiation or marine boot camp. If you want to make the big bucks, you’re expected to go through hell first. If you can’t take it, you don’t get in the club. It has almost nothing to do with the bottom line profits of these outfits, much less the benefit of the customers/patients.
I wish I had some good advice for people whose ambitions lead them to submit to this, but I don’t – except maybe to reexamine your core values and ask yourself if this is any way to live.