9-to-5. That’s the term we’ve heard used to describe the ho-hum of jobs. However, in our increasingly competitive job market, we are pressured to work long hours to stay on top of tasks and to accomplish more. In our current age, there are articles describing and almost idealizing public figures and their work habits to achieve success. Elon Musk, SpaceX and Tesla CEO, worked so much that he slept on his factory’s floor and clocked more than 120 hours a week.
While he admitted that this was not a sustainable lifestyle, and since has scaled to 80 to 90 hours a week, this example should prompt us to take a look at our own work habits and determine if they're healthy. Studies have shown a variety of adverse effects of long work hours and people have begun to pay more attention.
There are many reasons why people work long ones and below are some of the most frequently cited.
If everyone in the office is working 60 hours, it’s hard to justify leaving after 40 hours without being seen as a slacker. Even if you're efficient and complete all your work, managers will still judge employees by hours worked.
There are not enough hours in the working day to complete your work. If you have little control over your job responsibilities and workload, this is most likely the reason for your extra hours. Or you might be a specialist in your field and are indispensable, but it’s too much work to do on your own.
Some workplaces are poorly organized. The work isn't assigned based on job duties or capabilities, and you can end up with too much work, while your colleagues sit idly. Or your manager tells you last minute that there's an urgent deadline that makes you stay late since they have too much on their plate. Others are, unfortunately, plain inconsiderate.
You might just enjoy the work you do. However, according to Worksmart, a career coach app backed by Britain’s trade unions, you might be working so hard to avoid other issues in your life. It could be impacting your health, relationships and more.
In an office job, long working hours mean many hours sitting in your office chair. In a 2017 study published in Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center studied 7,985 working adults over the age of 45 and their inactivity during waking hours over a week. They found that employees who were sedentary for more than 13 hours a day were twice as likely to die prematurely as those who were inactive for 11.5 hours. According to co-author Dr. Monika Safford, “This study adds to the growing literature on how dangerous long periods of sitting are for our health and underscores a growing awareness among clinicians and researchers that sitting really is the new smoking.”
In a study, University College London researchers highlighted how long hours is bad for the heart. White-collar workers who worked 10 hours a day were 60 percent more likely to have heart-related health problems than white-collar workers who worked seven hours a day. A follow-up study found that people who worked long hours were 40 percent more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease than those who worked standard hours. Author Dr. Marianna Virtanen has said that there could be a number of reasons for the association between overtime and heart disease. Some explanations include high blood pressure that’s associated with work-related stress but is "hidden" because it doesn't necessarily show up during medical check-ups and "sickness presenteeism" whereby employees may work while ill and not seek medical help.
Marianna Virtanen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and her colleagues found that people working long hours are about 12 percent more likely to become heavy drinkers. In the study on excessive drinking, she and her colleagues studied a dataset of over 330,000 workers across 14 countries. “We found that working more than 48 hours a week was associated with increased risky alcohol use,” explains Virtanen.
One of the main features of regular overtime is not having a fixed work schedule. A study published in Neurobiology of Aging talks about how these irregular working hours can have an adverse effect on cognitive abilities. Researchers found that workers with varying shifts, rather than a fixed workday, needed more time to complete a test frequently used by doctors to screen of cognitive impairment. The symptoms included difficulty in remembering, learning new things and making decisions affecting everyday life. However, the researchers also said that shifting to a regular workday could help reverse the adverse effects of shift work.
A 2012 study published in PLoS ONE suggested that people who regularly work more than 11-hour days more than double their chances of major depression as compared to employees who typically work about eight hours a day. "Long working hours are likely to be related to less time to relax and less sleep," said study researcher Marianna Virtanen, PhD from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki. "It is also possible that excessive working hours result in problems with close relationships, which in turn, may trigger depression," she added. Since then, many other studies, including one in 2017 published in Occupational Medicine, have also reported the negative effects of long working hours on sleep and mental health.
Despite the toll on physical and mental health, you might think that the one benefit to working long hours is advancement in your career. However, in a study published in Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations Journal, researchers found that more work effort actually predicted reduced well-being and career-related outcomes. The study analyzed data from 51,895 employees from 36 European countries in a variety of industries, “We were somewhat surprised to find that work effort, whether overtime or work intensity, did not predict any positive outcomes for employees," said Argyro Avgoustaki and Hans Frankort, the study's authors.
Plan your day/week/month to ensure you're focusing on achieving your personal and team priorities, not being dragged along someone else’s agenda.
You can’t do everything yourself, so learn to let go and delegate certain responsibilities to other staff or automate them.
It’s good to be helpful, but don’t spread yourself too thin. If you agree to a task, you’re expected to take your commitment seriously. If you can’t meet your objectives, you’ll end up looking incompetent and feeling extra stressed.
Agree to the purpose of the meeting, create an agenda, start on time, bring pointless/repetitive discussions to a close and cancel meetings when the preparation work has not been done.
If you’ve been consistently underwater, talk to your manager and ask if it’s possible to get extra staff, reorganize your work, cut out waste or postpone less important items. Just note to phrase your suggestions in a way that would make your life, his/her life and team life easier rather than coming off as complaining.
If your workplace has a long-hours culture, it’s unlikely to go away unless you take steps to change the culture. Arrange with your colleagues (safety in numbers!) to raise the issue constructively in a team meeting. Ask questions rather than make accusations, identify the root causes and agree on solutions together and then support each other to avoid overwork.
We all want to work hard to advance our careers and find personal fulfillment. While certain workplace cultures emphasize long hours, it’s important for companies and individuals to be aware of the adverse effects long working hours have on our physical health, mental well-being and even career advancement.
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