If you've ever been stuck at the office, working late to meet a deadline for days on end, you may have wondered...can overwork kill you? Overwork — of which everyone has a slightly different exact definition but is understood to mean working far too hard — absolutely can kill you. And, as it turns out, even if overworking doesn't kill you, it can have some unpleasant side effects.
Can you die from working too hard?
In short, yes. You can die from overwork. In fact, there's even a word for this in Japanese: karoshi. It literally means "death from work" and is defined by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare as "the sudden death of an employee who works more than 80-100 hours of overtime a month." Over the past decade, Japan's nonstop work culture and rigid labor market have led to hundreds of people's deaths from overworking each year. In 2015, there were 189 deaths attributed to karoshi, The Washington Post reported— although analysts believe the real number was likely higher.
This isn't a phenomenon confined to Japan, either. The finance industry, in particular, has seen some high-profile deaths associated with overwork. They include Mortiz Erhardt (in 2013) and Sarvshreshth Gupta (in 2015). Erhardt — a 21-year-old intern in Bank of America Merrill Lynch's London office — died in his shower, with the water still running, after three consecutive nights of working until around 5 am. Gupta, a tech/media/telecom analyst in Goldman Sachs' San Francisco office, worked 20-hour days as well as weekends. His death was ultimately ruled to be a suicide, likely induced by the stress of his long hours.
Cases of death by overwork.
In addition to Erhardt and Gupta, there are numerous other examples of deaths due to overwork. There are just a few:
Sado, a 31-year-old reporter for Japanese national broadcaster NHK, died of congestive heart failure. She was found dead in her Tokyo apartment on July 25, 2013, clutching her mobile phone. Her death was kept secret for over four years out of respect for her parents' wishes, but in 2017, the Sado parents changed their minds and opened up about their daughter's death to warn others about the dangers of overwork.
According to labor officials in Tokyo, Sado had clocked 159 hours and 37 minutes of overtime at work in the month of her death. She'd also logged 146 hours and 57 minutes of overtime in the previous month. According to Sado's father, who went through her mobile phone and work computer, her overwork hours were actually even more than officials found — 207 hours — in the month up to her death, working out to almost seven hours of overtime a day, including on weekends.
Takahashi — a 24-year-old employee at Dentsu, Japan's top advertising firm and a company known for its hard-driving work culture — worked over 100 hours of overtime in the month leading up to her suicide in 2015. She leapt to her death from the company dormitory on Christmas Day, and Tokyo Labor Bureau investigators ruled her suicide karoshi.
After conducting an investigation, the Labor Bureau found that Takahashi had been required to work 100 hours or more of overtime for months on end. She often slept for less than two hours per night and was told to log fewer hours than she actually worked by her managers, while rarely taking a single day off.
In October 2017, a Tokyo court ruled that Dentsu had made three of its employees — including Takahashi — work overtime beyond legal limits from October to December 2015. The company was fined ¥500,000 ($4,400) and its CEO, Toshihiro Yamamoto, took a six-month-long 20% pay cut.
Sato, a 31-year-old contractor on a satellite project for Japan's space agency (JAXA), committed suicide in October of 2016. A lawyer representing his surviving family said he'd been working multiple 16-hour shifts at the time of his suicide. According to the lawyer, labor authorities found in the course of their investigation that Sato had been assigned "an unachievable quota" at work.
As Sato began to take on heavier responsibilities at work in September 2016, he was routinely working 70 or more hours of overtime a month. Additionally, his boss forced him to work the extra hours without pay, giving him a warning when he tried to claim the overtime. On the day of his death, Sato was reprimanded by his boss for about 30 minutes.
3,421 Subaru Workers in Japan.
In January 2019, The Japan Times reported that Subaru had failed to pay overtime wages to about 3,400 employees over a two-year period from mid-2015 to mid-2017. The outstanding wages, which totaled ¥776 million ($7.08 million), were paid retroactively to 3,421 workers in March 2018.
One of the workers, an unnamed 46-year-old white-collar worker, jumped to his death from the roof of a Subaru factory in 2016. After his death, Subaru said it owed him ¥4.08 million in overtime pay.
Over 400 local level election workers in Indonesia.
In May 2019, 424 out of a total of 7,385,500 local election workers were reported to have died over the course of the country's presidential and legislative elections on April 17, 2019. Both media and governing institutions in the country attributed the deaths to kelelahan — fatigue or exhaustion. Anna Karlina, the daughter of one of the deceased election workers, described long days and stress for election workers. She told CNN, "People simply were too overwhelmed with the workload."
Consequences of overwork.
In bad news for those who are at their offices for hours on end on a regular basis, overwork has a range of nasty consequences, both physical and mental.
The Institute for Work and Health in Toronto, Canada found that women who work over 45 hours a week are at an increased risk of diabetes due to the link between chronic stress and increased abnormal hormone levels and insulin resistance (both risk factors for diabetes). Make Gilbert-Ouimet, PhD, the study's lead researcher, said, "Women who worked 45 or more hours a week had a 63% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes over a 12-year period, compared to women working between 35 to 40."
Luckily for overworked men, the researchers didn't find a link between overwork and diabetes risk in male subjects. Gilbert-Ouimet couldn't explain the lack of a link in men but speculated that women might work more hours after accounting for household chores and family responsibilities. She also added that many of the men in the study had more physically demanding jobs than the women, so their relatively heavier labor may have provided protection from diabetes.
Abnormal heart rhythm.
In a TotallyMoney study of over 85,000 men in Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the U.K., researchers found that workers logging 55 or more hours a week, versus 35-40 hours a week, had a 1.4 times greater chance of having an abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation. This link held even after controlling for other risk factors, such as age, sex, obesity, physical inactivity, smoking, and risky alcohol use.
Mental health impairment
In a 2019 article in the Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers Sachiko Kuroda and Isamu Yamamoto found that overwork harmed workers' mental health. They concluded that those who overvalue job satisfaction work excessive hours, consequently damaging their mental health and that those who overwork underestimate the practice's negative effects on mental health.
In a 2015 study, researchers at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found that people who logged long hours were about 12% more likely to become heavy drinkers, as compared to people who didn't work long hours. One of the researchers, Marianna Virtanen, explained: "We found that working more than 48 hours a week was associated with increased risky alcohol use. We defined risky alcohol use as more than 14 drinks per week for women and more than 21 drinks per week for men.”
Diminished job performance.
Given that only 1-3% of the population can sleep five to six hours a night without experiencing a drop-off in performance, overwork — and the accompanying lack of sleep — destroys performance in most people.
On a related note, many of the soft skills that modern workplaces prize — such as interpersonal communication, making judgment calls, reading others' faces and managing your own emotional reactions — are diminished by overwork and its accompanying stress and exhaustion, according to Harvard Business Review.
No positive effects on career performance.
As it turns out, overwork generally isn't even recognized and rewarded by managers. In a study of consultants, Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, found that managers couldn't tell the difference between those who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who merely pretended to. While managers did penalize employees who were transparent about working less, Reid wasn't able to find any evidence that the employees working 80 hours a week actually accomplished more than their peers who didn't work such punishingly long hours.
The difference between working hard and overworking.
Working hard is best defined as doing your best to perform well in your job and putting in the maximal effort on a daily basis. You may occasionally work long hours, but your hours are generally reasonable and you're able to get the rest that you need and have a healthy work-life balance.
Overworking, by contrast, is marked by consistently staying late at the office, routinely working on weekends and constantly being connected to your work responsibilities to the detriment of your ability to disconnect and relax.
What can be done about overworking?
In good news for overworked workers, there are a number of steps you can take to address overwork.
Use your vacation time.
This is a no-brainer. In the U.S. in particular, many employees don't use their vacation time, which makes them much more likely to overwork simply because they're in the office all the time. You should absolutely use your vacation time, and you shouldn't feel bad about doing so — it's time off that you're entitled to. Moreover, you'll feel more refreshed, better able to handle work pressure and simply happier when you come back. All of that will benefit both you and your employer.
If, for some reason, you aren't able to take time entirely off from work, you could consider a workation. These working vacations blend travel and leisure for busy bees whose companies can't afford for them to be fully offline.
Review your workload with your manager.
If you're consistently pulling insanely long hours while no one else is, it may be time to re-evaluate your workload with your manager. Starting a conversation with your boss about the volume of work on your plate may identify responsibilities that can be shifted to other members of your team, which could decrease your workload.
If your workload warrants it (e.g. you've begun taking on additional responsibilities that are beyond your current job description), reviewing your workload with your boss could also lead to a promotion.
Increase your efficiency.
Sometimes, it won't be possible to shift your work onto other members of your team if everyone else is just as busy as you are or you're a team of one without anyone else to shift responsibilities onto. In such cases, working as efficiently as possible may be your best bet to working fewer hours.
Choose your industry wisely.
As you may have already picked up on, overwork is a significant problem in certain industries. The so-called "greedy professions" of finance, consulting and law are notorious for overwork, with employees in those fields routinely working 60-plus hours weeks. So, if you're serious about avoiding overwork, those professions may be good ones to avoid.
In addition to industries with a tendency toward overwork, managerial jobs across industries also tend to require long hours. So, if you're ever up for a promotion to a manager position at work, you may want to ask some tough questions about the hourly expectations so you know exactly what you're getting yourself into.