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The Big Idea—A new global study published on May 17th, 2021 by the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization says that working more than 55 hours per week is now the leading occupational hazard—and significantly increases the chances of early death.

Several years ago, I developed the habit of working 60+ hours per week (which—spoiler alert—I subsequently stopped doing).

I began to feel generally unwell—rapid heart rate, poor sleep quality, less time for exercise, unhealthy eating habits, more caffeine, a racing mind, and degradation of my abilities to focus, concentrate, or listen deeply.

The more I worked, the more I thought about work.

I felt agitated, restless, impatient, and amped up.

Inner peace or stillness was not something I ever experienced during that season.

Working that much took its toll on my body, mind, and spirit. I could tell intuitively that I did not feel well.

Many of you reading this have worked long hours.

You know what it feels like.

Do we really need research to tell us that it isn’t healthy?

If you do need research to help convince you, here are some of the key findings from the study:

  • Long working hours (having worked at least 55 hours per week) led to 745,000 deaths in 2016 from stroke and heart disease, a 29% increase since 2000
  • Risk of stroke rises by 35% and fatal heart disease by 17%, for those that work over 55 hours when compared to those who work 35-40 hours
  • Working more than 55 hours per week is now the leading occupational hazard and accounts for one third of the estimated work-related burden of disease
  • The work-related disease burden is particularly significant for men (72% were men)
  • Most of the recorded deaths in the study were between the ages of 60 and 79 for those who had worked more than 55 hours after the age of 45
  • The Western Pacific and South-East Asia showed the longest average working hours

“Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard. It’s time that we all, governments, employers, and employees, wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death.” –Dr. Maria Neira (Director of the Department of the Environment at W.H.O.)

Even back in 1969, Japan identified something they call Karoshi, which is translated “death by overwork.”

It’s probable that things like a meaningful job, a great boss, or more control over your work schedule might buffer against the harmful effects of long hours, but I didn’t find that commentary in the sources I reviewed.

Working long hours may also harm productivity

Interestingly, working longer hours has frequently been shown to have a marginal or even negative effect on productivity.

A paper published by John Pencavel at Stanford in 2014 analyzed data from munitions workers during the first world war.

An article on Pencavel’s analysis was subsequently published in The Economist entitled, “Proof that you should get a life.”

Here is a quote from that article:

“Reducing hours, say, from 55 to 50 hours a week, would have had only small effects on output. The results are even starker when we are talking about very long working hours. Output at 70 hours of work differed little from output at 56 hours. That extra 14 hours was a waste of time.”

Later articles and studies clearly identify similar findings with regard to knowledge workers (as related to the assembly line workers from Pencavel’s paper).

Why do we overwork?

Numerous articles have been written over the past few years about the reasons why people overwork.

Things like company culture, mandated overtime, financial needs or wants, higher cost of living, living longer in retirement, and often subconscious psychological, existential, and emotional needs—can drive the habit of overwork.

If you are working more than 50 hours per week, it’s worth stopping to identify what your personal reasons may be.

Do you live on a budget and control your personal spending habits?

Do you long for the office to escape problems in your personal life?

How much of your identity is tied to status, position, career, or how much you earn?

To be fair, I have friends who are critical workers whose jobs require them to work overtime every week or during certain months—or they will be fired. They might still want to consider whether a change is necessary in the long run, but they are not the target audience for this article.

I also want to be sensitive to the fact that some companies cut back on staffing during the pandemic to save money—forcing existing employees to pull longer hours and produce more.

However, it is interesting that a recent New York Times article entitled “Working less is a matter of life and death” points out that it is often the wealthiest 10% who work the most because working long hours often symbolizes wealth and importance.

Derek Thompson is a staff writer at the Atlantic who even suggests that workaholism has become like a “new religion.”

Take action now

Here are some steps you can take now to utilize your new knowledge:

  1. Set clear and healthy company policies. If you are an organizational leader, make sure your company policies encourage healthy working hours and use of vacation. It’s worth noting that the World Health Organization recommends 35-40 hour work weeks. They also recommend a limit on maximum overtime hours allowed.
  2. Model and encourage healthy work hours and vacation use. More is caught than taught. Leading by example is one of the first laws of leadership, or parenting. If you want your employees (and children) to have a healthy and balanced life, you need to model it first. Note that the European Union now requires at least 20 vacation days per year, with many countries mandating much more annual time off.
  3. Get your needs for significance met in other areas of life. Finding meaning in volunteer work, serving your family, and having fun with friends can all help meet psychological needs that might be driving your habit of working too much. If you have a problem at home right now, be proactive and seek help.
  4. Help your kids find ways through college that don’t involve massive student loans that leave them working hard and struggling for the next 30 years.
  5. Be careful with the size of your mortgage. In the last year, overbidding a mortgage has become the norm and I have to imagine that a lot of people will end up strapping on a mortgage that forces them to work long hours to keep up with the bills.
  6. Do a budget. You must know what is coming in and going out every month. Research has shown that doing a budget is the first step in financial fitness. And the best way to cut back your work hours might just be spending less money.
  7. Aim for 35 to 40 hours as a personal goal. If you currently work long hours, begin to strategize ways that you might be able to cut back, even if it takes you a few years to achieve.

Have a great weekend!

Parker

*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.

Want more? Suggested Resources Below

  1. Working less is a matter of life and death—New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/29/opinion/work-hours-us-health.html
  2. WHO and ILO Study link https://www.who.int/news/item/17-05-2021-long-working-hours-increasing-deaths-from-heart-disease-and-stroke-who-ilo

 

 

 

 

Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a board-certified Organizational Psychologist and Leadership Performance Coach. His personal mission is to improve the way people live and work by helping them apply science-based strategies for personal, family, and workplace leadership—in that order. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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