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The Tragedy of Overwork

13 Jun 2022

Overwork is a problem for individuals, families, and societies. Find out more about how those extra work hours weigh on your productivity, health, and relationships.

There is a major problem in our societies – glorification of overwork. Fictional characters and real life entrepreneurs alike are perpetuating the myth of working from dawn till dusk as a hallmark of success, a pathway to achievement, or a source of joy and fulfillment. The roots of this go back as far as the 16th century. Back then strong work ethic (and success that arose from it) was deeply tied to perceptions of divine favoritism. 

As societies have changed, we no longer see the intentions of God in the actions (and achievements) of men. Nevertheless, the cult of overwork persists with most company bosses, managers, and even regular workers indulging in it. And why wouldn’t they if the society and the economic system celebrates high achieving leaders, financiers, and business folk?

The Changing View On Overwork

A recent WHO/ILO study shines a spotlight on a significant issue with all of this. While an 80-hour week may indeed work for some high-flying executives, for the average Joe overwork can be a quite risky endeavor. 

An estimated 745 194 premature deaths from ischaemic heart disease and stroke are attributed to overwork each year. For comparison, that is more than deaths linked to malaria. To make matters worse, it adds over 23 million disability adjusted life years to the global tally. In other words – the global population has lost an additional 23 million life years to premature death.

What makes matters worse is that the study also shows a worrying increase in exposure to overwork between 2010 and 2016 (the cutoff year for researchers). Consider other findings that seem to indicate that those working remotely during the pandemic saw an increase in their working hours. It is not far-fetched to assume that the tally of those subjected to overwork (488 million in 2016) has only increased.

The demography question

It is also important to consider the demographic indicators. For many of us in Europe and the United States it may seem that we are at the center of everything. However, it seems that the heaviest burden of overwork falls on South-East Asia and Western Pacific with middle-aged men there being at the center of the storm. 

There are, of course, Europeans and Americans who are genuinely overworked, particularly with the ascent of gig economy. But it is nothing compared to the crazy 9-9-6 work schedules seen in China (from 9 am to 9 pm 6 days a week) and culture of overwork in the other two East Asian powerhouses – Japan and South Korea. As the study shows, South-East Asian countries, despite being less affluent than their European or Asian neighbors, have also caught the bug of overwork.

There is no doubt about it – overwork is a global public health crisis that needs to be tackled by governments, companies, and individuals. We won’t advocate for government policies or private sector practices that should be adopted – let’s leave that to experts.

Why to Steer Clear of Overwork

BePrime was established to help people be their happiest and most productive selves. Overwork and all the stress and strain that is tied to it will take you the opposite way. Here are the three main reasons why I believe you should avoid overworking at all costs.

Health considerations

First, a study of British civil servants back in 2006 highlighted a direct link between stress at work and metabolic syndrome – a combination of high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. A Harvard study some 10 years later backed these findings by reaserting the cardiovascular risks of overwork. 

Second, overwork does not just affect the health of pencil pushers. Physical laborers, despite staying active, are just as likely to suffer from health problems due to overwork, particularly tied to physical trauma and injury. Overexertion while doing physical labor was the second leading cause of injury and illness in the pre-pandemic United States. 

Things may have actually gotten worse as illustrated by the Amazon case – rising demand for delivery increases workloads for warehouse workers while work conditions and protection against the virus are meager. In addition, rising workloads lead to physical exhaustion which when piled up can’t be treated with a simple long night’s sleep. Instead, it’s another path to burning out.

Third, overworked individuals have poorer diets and lifestyle habits. Remember – you are what you eat. Overworked people are more likely to consume fast food, alcohol, and pain killers and less likely to hydrate their bodies properly. Since overwork usually chips away at the already limited time we have, physical activity for those working more than 55 hours a week drops significantly. This is not ideal.

Finally, overwork leads to higher risks of anxiety and depression. No matter what you do, it’s all in the head. If you constantly push yourself too hard, you will end up falling over the edge. WHO considers depression one of the leading causes of disability around the world. An estimated 264 million people suffer from it causing $1 trillion in lost productivity.

Productivity

The aforementioned health consequences of overworking are a clear sign that it is also not conducive to productivity! You will end up costing your employer or your personal business more, if your health is in the gutter. In addition, the more time you work, the less time you have for keeping yourself in shape and eating properly – both essential for a healthy and productive mind. Finally, more work hours equals less sleep. The more sleep deprived you are, the further your productivity drops.

Research also shows that overwork does not necessarily result in more output. In fact, your boss might not even be able to tell the difference if you work 8 or 16 hours a day. Our ability to concentrate is not infinite – the more hours you spend in front of your computer screen, the less productive they are likely to be. Even if you try to push forward, you will make more mistakes which in the end may not reflect too well on you.

The biggest problem with overwork is that you get stuck in a vicious cycle of doing menial things. When we work in the confines of a workday and pull all our limited concentration resources together to deal with the most challenging things, we achieve something meaningful and feel great about ourselves. If, on the other hand, we constantly work longer than necessary, we end up opting for tasks that require less willpower and are less intellectually challenging. What would be more impactful – a single project that has been perfectly implemented or three projects that have been scrapped due to mistakes and poor analytical work?

Relationships

If none of the things outlined above is convincing enough for you, then don’t overwork for the most important reason – your loved ones. Every hour you spend slaving away is one fewer hour spent with those who matter the most – your family and friends. 

Sure, those very few who overwork together with their friends or family, may initially seem as being better off, but it can be even worse This is because they keep on punishing themselves with excessive hours due to love and loyalty. In the end, they will collapse all the same, but the pit will be deeper and the entire process will hurt your loved ones not just emotionally, but professionally too.

I really like Joe Grano’s perspective on this. People who overwork find rational reasons to justify their actions. They see the benefits from their busy schedules for themselves, their family, or their business and assume that these reasons are obvious to everyone. 

What you have to realize is that your rationalizations are just that – YOUR rationalizations. They reflect your priorities and reasons. Since your family and friends are unlikely to share them, they will not be convinced by them. After all, how often do you hear adults reminiscing about attending an expensive private school instead of spending more time with their mom or dad? Or spouses being thrilled about being in the upper-income quintile only at the slight cost of never meeting each other awake?

My advice is to take a day off from work to talk to your family and meet your friends. Understand how important these relationships are to you and how you can maintain them in a sustainable, reciprocal fashion.

Final Thoughts

Work is an important part of our lives. It can give us purpose and joy. Overwork can suck those things right out from that experience. Conversely, good health, fulfilling work, and meaningful relationships are the pillars underpinning a happy life. Maintain that balance!

Author: Lote Steina

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Life doesen't have a do-over.
Commit to it! BePrime!
Life doesen't have a do-over.
Commit to it! BePrime!