Career Advice

Overworking Is Deadly Whether You Work in an Office, on a Factory Floor, or at Your Own Home

Kara Jillian Brown

Photo: Getty Images / Kathrin Ziegler
For those who work beyond the standard 9-to-5, the impact of the daily grind is undeniably damaging. Working long hours, late nights, and early mornings makes it all the more difficult to prioritize your well-being by maintaining healthy habits. Over time, this can lead to an overall decline in health, says Marianela Areces, MD, a cardiologist at Pritikin Longevity Center. Overworking at work (or at home) impacts the body in two distinct ways.

"The increase of stress hormones in your body, which can trigger problems in the cardiovascular system, like increasing blood pressure and a series of other processes, can lead to what we call coronary artery disease," says Dr. Areces. "The more obvious impact is the behavioral changes, your lifestyle changes that occur because you're working so many long hours. Meaning that you don't exercise, you have physical inactivity, you may be sleeping poorly which can lead to eating the wrong foods, the propensity to alcohol or smoking, things like that."

The World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization released a joint report, published in the September 2021 issue of Environment International, that shows that working more than 55 hours a week has deleterious effects to your health. The report examined 2000, 2010, and 2016 estimates of global, regional, and national exposure to long working hours for 194 countries, and the "attributable burdens of ischemic heart disease and stroke" for 183 countries. The data was broken down by sex and age. Researchers found that overworking is common and can lead to ischemic heart disease (also called coronary heart disease and coronary artery disease) and stroke.

"The body is very complicated, so you have to be careful at making statements like 'overworking leads to heart attacks' in general. There are different mechanisms by which that occurs," says Dr. Areces. The study did not specify what kind of work people were doing, she says, "which is interesting because sometimes you can have long hours of a lower stress job, versus long hours of a higher stress job. And they didn't study that. But I'm fairly willing to bet that those people with higher stress jobs, be it physical or emotional stress, probably are at higher risk."

While this research analyzed surveys from those working within paid labor markets, the same impacts can be felt for unpaid caregiving and housework "which is all work," says Yana van der Meulen Rodgers, PhD, the faculty director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University.

"Globally, women do a total of more work than men once you add in unpaid work," says Dr. Rodgers, who is also a professor of labor studies and employment relations.  "In just about every single country around the world, once you add the total minutes per day or hours a week in paid work and unpaid work, then women do more work than men, which would suggest that the extent to which these stress factors lead to poor health and perhaps morbidity, that overwork is more of a problem for women than men."

For most, overworking at work and at home is done not by choice but out of necessity. More often than not, "working less" isn't an option. "The bottom line is that if we make the wrong choices by nutrition, and lack of exercise, and smoking, or not sleeping well, et cetera, that the outcome is the same," says Dr. Areces. Dr. Rodgers adds that it's helpful for workers to learn about the labor legislation in their area and advocate for their needs.

"Sometimes, workers can organize and see what the potential is for union activity [or] if there is a union to join. They can also bargain with their employers, especially now during this environment in which there are a lot of better-paying jobs with better working conditions," says Dr. Rodgers. "Workers can threaten to vote with their feet, or they can actually vote with their feet and go elsewhere. I think employers historically have gotten used to a low-wage economy where employers control the terms of employment. We are now in a situation where employees have a lot more control, given that we're recovering from this pandemic. Now is the time, if any, for employees to take control and advocate for themselves because they do have a bit more bargaining power than they've had in the last 50 to 70 years."

The onus, however, shouldn't rest fully on the individual. Overworking needs to be addressed with policy changes, says Dr. Rodgers. For starters, she says, the federal minimum wage needs to be increased. "What we're hearing about a lot in the latest media reports the last couple of months, [is the] so-called work labor shortages," she says. "They're not labor shortages. It's a shortage of jobs that have meaningful pay."

This is especially important right now as Labor Day marked the end of many enhanced federal unemployment insurances put in place during the coronavirus pandemic. About 9 million people lost all benefits and another 3 million will see weekly checks reduced by $300, reports CNBC. "Unemployment insurance is there for a reason, that it does give people the means to search for a meaningful job," says Dr. Rodgers. "And unemployment insurance should not be political and it should not be [to blame for] supposed labor shortage."

Additionally, Dr. Rodgers says policies are needed to enforce fair scheduling practices. "There's still a lot of employers, especially in localities that do not have fair working-hour legislation that can change workers' schedules at a whim," says Dr. Rodgers. "Workers don't know their hours until the day of, or that week. And that contributes to stress."

Employer and governmental should "make it easier for working families to balance their needs, to take care of children, and to engage in household work combined with their paid work," says Dr. Rodgers. "Employers can make more allowances for flex time, working from home, paid leave, and a number of other measures that can help to destigmatize taking advantage of some of these flexible policies, especially for men who are really stigmatized for trying to spend more time at home." In turn, such policies lead to a more equitable distribution of work within the home and decrease the overall burden of overworking at work.

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