Home Career Work–Life Balance The Physical Toll of Working Too Much

The Physical Toll of Working Too Much

Hard work is a cultural value that gets passed on from one generation to the next, and much of our life is built around it. Working as hard as you can, proving your competence, and finding satisfaction in what you do – this is what many of us aspire to.

Surprisingly, hard work as a western cultural norm is only a few centuries old. According to work ethics professor Roger B. Hill, ancient civilizations like the Hebrews and the Greeks generally considered work to be ‘a curse’ (Hill 1999). Working hard was a necessity for many groups of people, but it was viewed with disdain by those who could avoid it.

This attitude started changing in the 16th century, when the Protestant Reformation re-framed work as a personal calling. Diligence started being seen as admirable. Today, we tend to think of hard work as fulfilling in and of itself, and we also try to choose professions that match our passions and skills.

All this helps explain why overwork is a frequent problem for employees in all professions, and it affects both financially secure people and those who are struggling to make ends meet. Considering the cultural context, it’s clear why people may find it difficult to discuss the downsides of hard work.

The truth is that working too much can cause major mental and physical issues. The damage to our lives can be irrevocable.

How Our Bodies Pay the Cost of Overwork

According to the National Safety Council’s statistics, around 4.6 million workplace injuries happen across the US every year (NSC 2020). The most high-risk jobs include firefighting, transportation, repair, and construction – but every job carries the risk of injury and chronic conditions, and the risk grows when people work overtime.

Here are some of the risks we should all be aware of.

Cardiac Problems

One of the most significant downsides of working too much is the way it affects the heart.

A 2017 study showed that working more than 55 hours a week puts people at a heightened risk of a cardiac condition called atrial fibrillation (Kivimäki et al. 2017). This condition comes with an irregular heartbeat, and it is a major cause of stroke.

This research followed over 85,000 working adults, and it spanned an entire decade. Here are some of the most important things the scientists found:

  • People who work more than 55 hours a week are likelier to be obese than those who work 35-40 hours.
  • They also work out less, and they consume more alcohol.
  • They are likelier to be smokers.
  • Even when all these differences are taken into account, cardiac issues are more frequent in those who work over 55 hours a week. For example, a fit non-smoker who works long hours is likelier to suffer from atrial fibrillation than a fit non-smoker who works normal hours.

This particular study didn’t look into death rates, but it proved beyond a doubt that stroke is more frequent in people who work too much. Heart failure is associated with atrial fibrillation too (Preidt 2017).

Diabetes

Diabetes is another chronic condition that has been linked with working long hours. Two major studies looked into this relatively recently, and both found a connection, but with some interesting caveats.

The Socioeconomic Factor

A group of scientists analyzed data from over 222,000 people, taking socioeconomic status into account (Kivimäki et al. 2014). They found that people who work more than 55 hours a week are at a much higher risk of diabetes – but this only applies if they are of a lower socioeconomic status. The causes behind this likely include the lower physical activity levels and worse sleep quality that come with working overtime. Shift work heightens the risk of diabetes too.

The Gender Factor

A 12-year study on workers in Ontario, Canada, showed that working more than 45 hours a week considerably heightens the risk of diabetes in women (Gilbert-Ouimet et al. 2018). The risk of diabetes in the men who participated in this study wasn’t increased by long working hours. In fact, men who worked over 45 hours a week were slightly less likely to have diabetes than those who worked fewer hours.

Why the gender disparity? The scientists working on this project guess that it could come from the additional housework women do when they’re at home. Another potential reason is that the people being studied have different jobs, and “a third of the men working long hours said they spent that time doing a combination of sitting, standing and walking, compared to only 8% of the women who worked longer hours.” (Park 2018)

Back Pain (and Other Job-Specific Ailments)

Depending on what kind of work you do, long hours can turn a mild annoyance into a serious, lasting health problem. For example, spending more time exposed to noise can increase one’s chances of gradual hearing loss. Prolonged workplace stress leads to headaches and digestion problems, which get worse when a person is under more strain.

Standing too much at work causes back pain and fatigue (Paddock 2015), and varicose veins can also become a problem. Of course, the effects of sitting too much are just as dire. More than 80% of Americans spend their workday sitting – but even more shockingly, office workers sit around 15 hours a day on average (Fisher 2019). This sedentary way of working impacts our cardiovascular health, as mentioned above. It also has an intensely negative effect on our bones and muscles, our abdominal fat layers, and even our urinary health.

But the most obvious and significant impact of sitting is the harm to our neck and back. The following TED Talk by a physical therapist explains exactly how back pain develops in modern society:

The pain that comes with these musculoskeletal problems can sometimes cause further complications – for example, it can further reduce our sleep quality, or even lead to pain medicine addiction.

What Can You Do About It?

These are far from the only health risks associated with working too much. Researchers have also found links between overwork and alcohol use (Virtanen et al. 2015), and they showed that working long hours harms our sleep (Afonso, Fonesca & Pires 2017). There are countless studies about the way work affects our stress levels and mental health.

The situation seems bleak, but there are changes on the horizon. Experts in the medical world and the business world are trying to make sure this issue gets wider recognition.

Jeffrey Pfeffer is one such expert. His book, Dying for a Paycheck, explains the failings of the current system and identifies some of the changes that can be made within organizations. Pfeffer is both passionate and provocative, and many of his views and discoveries are summed up in this podcast interview.

But what about individual, personal change?

When we’re working too much, it becomes especially important to focus on protecting our health. As much as possible, we should aim for a regular sleep schedule, good nutrition, and we shouldn’t give up on taking breaks during the workday.

Unfortunately, being in a bad physical or mental shape makes it harder to break away from an exhausting job. However, gradual improvement is possible, and it starts with thinking about your priorities. Hard work is valuable for many ways – but it isn’t more important than our health and wellbeing.

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