Working long hours and dealing with chronic stress can have a long-lasting impact on a person’s health and well-being. In this Special Feature, we look at the scientific evidence that overwork can negatively impact health, and find out what health experts have to say about this link, and how to prevent or address the effects of overwork.
Working hard has been synonymous with success, especially in the workplace. While there is no denying there are benefits to hard work, such as personal development and inspiring others around you, the opposite can be said about overworking.
While the concept of overwork is not new, it reached a pivotal point during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, the move to work from home and required lockdowns led many people to begin working longer hours due to dissolving boundaries between work and home time.
A survey conducted by staffing firm Robert Half in 2020 found that 55% of respondents who transitioned to work-from-home arrangements worked on the weekends, while 34% said they were working more than 8 hours per day on a regular basis.
The National Bureau of Economic Research also reported that the length of the average workday increased by 48.5 minutes during the pandemic.
The overworking burden during the pandemic was profoundly felt by frontline workers, such as healthcare professionals and emergency responders. Studies found that healthcare workers were at high risk for burnout due to their increased workload during the pandemic.
In May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” where a person’s workplace stress has not been properly managed. It can be characterized by:
In addition to these detrimental feelings and consequences, a variety of research emphasizes the negative impact that overwork can have on health, overall.
As Dr. Adam Perlman — director of integrative health and wellbeing for Mayo Clinic Florida, and chief medical officer at meQuilibrium — told Medical News Today, while a person’s body and brain have an unbelievable capacity to be resilient and adaptable, they have their limits and need to be taken care of in order to be able to function well.
“When we overwork and fail to prioritize self-care, we don’t give the body or the brain what it needs to rest and recuperate,” he added. “Ultimately, that tends to lead to both physical and mental distress.”
One of the greatest concerns regarding overworking and burnout is stress. That is because increased stress has been linked to a variety of health concerns, from depression to diabetes, high blood pressure, and digestive issues.
Clinical social worker Iris Waichler explained for MNT that additional stress from overworking can increase the production of the hormone cortisol.
“This can increase risk for a heart attack or stroke,” she noted. “Increased stress on the body can also cause backache and neck ache and tightening of muscles.”
“Healthy nutrition can suffer if there is no time to eat at work or time to grocery shop or cook healthier meals,” Waichler added. “Additional time at work also means less time for relationships, exercise, and doing other things that can help you relax. Finally, additional stress can cause people to turn to alcohol or drugs to cope. Burnout can be the end result.”
Given that even minor stressors can impact a person’s long-term health, as a study from 2018 suggests, the impact of chronic stress exposure can be dire.
“When you are experiencing stress over a long period of time, your [‘fight or flight‘] mechanism can be constantly switched on,” explained Elizabeth Roddick, a U.K.-based pharmacist, and health advisor for women over 50.
“Ironically this mechanism is useful in times of danger [such as] when getting out of the way of a car. The sudden rush of adrenaline fires up your muscles, heart, and visual awareness, helping you to move at speed,” she said.
“If on the other hand, relentless stress is permeating your working life, maybe coupled with long hours without a break, then both your mental and physical health can be affected.”
– Elizabeth Roddick
Roddick gave MNT a personal example of work-related stress through her own experience running two pharmacies in Glasgow.
When staff members became ill and Roddick was forced to overwork, she contracted a throat infection, resulting in the inability to speak clearly for 2 months.
“This […] illustrates clearly how overwhelming stress can result in the manifestation of physical issues,” Roddick said. “And how, encountering many examples over the years of my patients exhibiting physical symptoms due to stress, it is vital for well-being to make sure stress is managed before it affects health.”
With overwork and burnout causing health concerns, one may well wonder how this may impact a person’s mortality risk.
The WHO reported an increase in working hours contributed to the deaths of 745,000 people via stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016 — a 29% increase compared to data from 2000.
The study also showed that those working 55 or more hours a week had a 35% higher risk for stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease when compared to people who worked 35 to 40 hours a week.
While overworking is a problem around the world, authorities in Asian countries — especially Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan — have expressed particular concern about this phenomenon. In Japanese, there is even a special term for this, “karoshi,” which means “death from overworking.”
Researchers have linked karoshi to a number of health concerns, including stroke and cardiovascular disease.
Scientists have also associated overworking with other potentially life-threatening conditions, including cerebrovascular and cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, some forms of cancer, arthritis, chronic lung disease, and hypertension.
What can employees and employers do to prevent overworking and burnout?
First and foremost, Dr. Perlman said, employers need to maintain open dialogue and lines of communication with their employees to truly understand the overwork challenges they may be facing.
“Emphasizing that employees should take time to rest and recharge and take their vacation days is a critical role for leadership. Stressing that managers should do their best to minimize excessive meetings and administrative burden is also important. In addition, frequent communication around available resources to support both mental and physical well-being that employees have access to within a company is critical.”
– Dr. Adam Perlman
Waichler also advised employers to address overwork issues and concerns by creating opportunities for mental health days, and family medical leave when health or other crises occurs.
She also suggested employers have someone that female employees, specifically, feel comfortable speaking with if they experience burnout symptoms, such as mood or behavior changes.
Studies show that women in the workplace experience a higher rate of burnout compared with men due to added home life responsibilities.
“Women traditionally balance more than one role in addition to their job,” Waichler explained. “That can include their roles as wives, mothers, sisters, etc. [Around] 65% of the time women are caregivers in addition to everything else that they do. When you combine their work roles with all of their other life demands and responsibilities it is a recipe for stress and burnout. This scenario leaves little time for women to engage in self-care activities.”
As for employees themselves, Waichler advised paying attention to negative changes to one’s body, mood, and behavior, and to seek help when necessary.
She also suggested that “practic[ing] mindfulness techniques like yoga” might help relieve the stress. “Meditation and deep breathing can have a calming effect, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and alleviate stress in the body. Even taking a short break at work and doing some deep breathing can be useful,” she noted.
And Dr. Perlman advised employees to advocate for their personal mental and physical well-being as much as possible:
“Ideally, psychological safety should exist within a company such that an employee could speak with their supervisor regarding concerns they have around overworking and the impact it is having on their emotional and physical health.”
“Fortunately, administrators are increasingly aware of the toll that overworking is taking on their employees and, although not always the case, are more sensitive to finding creative solutions such as added flexibility around schedules and hybrid models of working from the office as well as virtually,” Dr. Perlman noted.