Why Overworking Is More Serious Than We Thought

Working too much can actually kill us.

We often need more time to finish all tasks during a working day. As a result, many of us spend more time at work than we should. And even at home, we keep working on our laptops and keep an eye on our phones all the time. 

For many industries, overworking is a norm, and such views can create the illusion that it is ok and safe. Since the first effects of excessive work impact mental health, they are often overlooked. Until it`s too late.

Scary Statistics

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO), long working hours kill hundreds of thousands of people annually.

The first global research of this kind found that in 2016, 745 000 people died from a stroke and heart disease due to long working hours. Almost half a billion people worked more than 55 hours weekly, while the norm was 35-40 hours. The report states that people living in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific region are the most affected by death from overwork.

If we compare these numbers with the year 2000, the number of deaths from diseases caused by overwork has increased by 29%. And mortality from heart diseases as a result of working too many hours — by 42%.

The study found that working 55 or more hours per week was associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of death from heart disease compared to working 35 to 40 hours weekly.

This research also found that nearly three-quarters of those who died as a result of long-term work were middle-aged and older men. Death often came much later, sometimes decades, after the overtime started.

The WHO also said that the trend could worsen due to the coronavirus pandemic. Although the study did not cover the pandemic period, WHO officials said the recent surge in remote work and the economic downturn may have increased the risks associated with long working hours.

We have some evidence that when countries go into national isolation, the number of hours worked increases by about 10%

They're saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way most of the  people work. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in the statement that teleworking had become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work.

In addition, he said, many businesses have been forced to scale back or shut down operations to save money, and employees who are still on the payroll end up working longer hours.

In the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that people working from home during the pandemic spent an average of six hours of unpaid overtime a week. And people who did not work from home worked an average of 3.6 hours of overtime per week.

And if you think overtiming is mainly a problem of eastern countries, the statistic says otherwise. For example, in 2021, Mexico was ranked the most overworked country in the world (the U.S. was 10th, and the UK was 32nd). Japan is only 25th.

But people continue to work too much, even if they feel under the weather because of the long hours.

How To Notice The Danger?

Too much work can take a toll on your health (both mental and physical). A person is more likely to suffer from adverse health problems, such as:

  • neck, back, or chest pain
  • stroke
  • coronary heart disease
  • type 2 diabetes
  • anxiety, etc

Overwork is stress. When a person works, it triggers the exact mechanisms as in a stressful situation. The body produces the hormone cortisol.

One of cortisol`s functions is anaesthesia. It can be manifested in a banal situation. For example, a person works on a laptop and understands that they are starving; they decide to finish the letter and leave to eat something. But only remember that in two hours. Under healthy circumstances, a person would not forget the feeling of hunger.

One of the first signs of burnout is when work begins to take away critical basic things: eating, sleep, drinking, and the need to go to the toilet. And a person notices this only after the fact. When all this accumulates, the human body becomes exhausted, and diseases take over.

Stages of burnout:

  1. Passion From Work That Drags On 
    A person's eyes are burning; they want to work too much and are intensely involved in the project. At this stage, a person is full of strength and energy. It seems they can do everything, convinced they are a superhero without whom no one cannot do.
  2. Fatigue And Chronic Stress
    At this stage, a person cannot get rid of thoughts about work — they even dream about it. A person seems tired but does not want to lose face, so they continue. They cannot turn off: they are shaken by the pressure of work notifications, but they are unable to turn them off, at least for a time being.
  3. Exhaustion That Can Grow Into Depression
    Everything becomes a burden. A person cannot enjoy anything and feels tired all the time.
  4. Irreversible Exhaustion
    A person despairs at work and becomes sceptical and cynical. You understand that you are an expert in what you do and cannot tear yourself away from this occupation. Work becomes a huge part of a person but destroys them from the inside. 

You can mainly help yourself on your own only in the first and second stages. Further, a person is not able to objectively assess reality. Moreover, to identify burnout on their own or to understand what is approaching it, a person must go through several such circles earlier. In other cases, it would rather be noticed by someone from the outside — for example, a psychotherapist.

To cope with the third and fourth stages, a person often needs to change the field of occupation. But due to a distorted consciousness, they tend to devalue all their professional experience.

What Can Be Done To Prevent Overworking?

When your job harms your health, you need to take a step back and start prioritising your well-being.

What can you do to prevent exhaustion from overwork:

  • Plan time for rest and pauses for recharging. Do not drag it to the moment when it is already physically impossible to work. It can be regular several-day trips to nature; even short vacations make a difference.
  • Do not take work on vacation because it will only get worse. It also would not help if, instead of rebooting, a person gets bogged down in everyday life or side jobs.
  • Limit the working period. Stay out of work at night, and have time for yourself.
  • Only read or respond to work messages during designated hours, and don't do that on weekends.
  • Know your worth. Often, people who do not have this feeling wait for positive confirmation from the outside — and when they become dependent on the opinion of others, they work even harder to prove that they are valued for a reason.
  • Use breaks to recuperate during the working day. During the day, we gradually transition from a state of combat work to a state of physiological fatigue approximately every 90 minutes. Your body signals that it needs a break and instead you stuff yourself with caffeine, sugar, smoke, and stress hormones — adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. But even 5-10 min rest will help you to recharge and be more productive during the day.
  • Leave the office for lunch. Change of scenery is important; it helps to revive your senses and powers.
  • Get enough sleep. Researchers have found that sleep deprivation (less than six hours/night) is one of the strongest predictors of workplace burnout. A study by Harvard University revealed that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 per year in lost productivity.
  • Try to work from home at least a few days a week. So you can avoid grueling rush-hour commutes across the city and save some time for yourself. But be careful not to overwork from home as well — set alarms for starting and finishing working day, take breaks and do some physical activities between chunks of work.

And remember what Pega said:

No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease. Governments, employers, and workers need to work together to agree on limits to protect the health of workers.