The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the nature of work, with remote work and hybrid work models becoming more common. For many office jobs, the shift to working from home has blurred the boundaries between work and personal life.
Without the physical separation between work and home, employees are spending more time sitting at their desks. Technologies like video conferencing, messaging apps, and always-connected devices have created an expectation of constant availability and responsiveness from employees, even during off-work hours.
Furthermore, the surge in layoffs and economic uncertainty during the pandemic led to overburdened workloads for those who remained employed. Surviving employees had to take on expanded roles and responsibilities, leading to longer working hours.
In this new normal, it’s more important than ever for employers to be aware of the impact that increased work hours and constant connectivity can have on employee health and well-being.
Without proper safeguards, the risk of burnout, stress-related diseases, and mental health issues rises substantially.
The Rising Culture of Overwork
A recent study by the International Bar Association found that more than 40% of legal professionals around the world are working more than 50 hours per week on average. This culture of overwork and “hustle” has become pervasive across industries. Factors driving increased working hours include:
- Financial incentives and promotion prospects are tied to longer hours.
- Pressure to be constantly available and responsive.
- Blurred boundaries between work and personal life with remote work.
- Layoffs lead to increased workloads for remaining staff.
With the rise of smartphones and remote work technologies, there is an expectation for many employees to be always on call and responsive 24/7.
Even after official working hours, employees are pressured to check their emails and messages constantly. This leads to work seeping into nights, weekends, and vacations.
Moreover, the “hustle culture” promoted by influencers on social media glorifies overwork and downplays the need for rest, relaxation, and balance. Younger generations in particular are more likely to buy into the myth that working exceptionally long hours is necessary for success.
Without proper safeguards, excessive work hours can take a serious toll on employees in the long run.
The Impact of Long Hours on Physical Health
Working long hours on a sustained basis can negatively impact employees’ physical well-being in various ways:
- Increased Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: A major meta-analysis found that employees working long hours had a 1.4 times higher risk of stroke.
- Musculoskeletal Disorders: Bending over a computer for extended periods can lead to back, neck, and shoulder pain.
- Fatigue and Sleep Deprivation: Too much work can lead to mental exhaustion and insomnia. In these cases, lack of sleep further worsens health.
- Unhealthy Habits: Overworked employees are more likely to cope through smoking, excessive drinking, and poor eating habits.
- Weakened Immunity: Chronic stress from overwork suppresses the immune system, making people prone to frequent illnesses.
Accurately tracking hours worked through time-tracking solutions can help uncover unhealthy trends of overwork early on before they take a toll on physical health.
The Toll of Overwork on Mental Health
Working excessive hours can be mentally taxing and trigger issues like:
- Burnout: Prolonged periods of work overload and stress drain employees emotionally. It manifests as exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy.
- Anxiety and Depression: The constant pressure to overperform takes a psychological toll, sometimes leading to mood disorders.
- Work-Life Conflict: Prioritizing work above all else strains personal relationships and disrupts work-life balance.
- Cognitive Impairment: Overwork causes decreased concentration, lack of focus and creativity, and poor decision-making.
The human brain and body are built for cycles of activity and rest. When we override these natural cycles for too long, it leads to mental fatigue, inability to focus, irritability, disinterest, and eventually – burnout.
Employees suffering from burnout often adopt negative coping methods like emotional outbursts, substance abuse, or even self-harm.
Furthermore, constant stress from overwork releases cortisol and adrenaline hormones into the body for extended periods of time. This can literally alter brain chemistry and architecture over time, leading to mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
Without timely intervention, mental health issues due to overwork can derail careers and personal lives quite quickly.
Health Hazards of Overwork: By the Numbers
Some statistics that illustrate the extent of health issues caused by excessive work hours:
- Employees working over 55 hours per week have a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying compared to those working 35-40 hours.
- Those working over 11 hours daily have a 2.3 times greater risk of depression according to a Japanese study.
- A Harvard study found a strong correlation between cases of cardiovascular disease and employees working more than 10 hours daily for over 6 years.
Clearly, overwork and long hours take a heavy toll on well-being over time if not managed proactively by organizations.
Creating a Culture of Work-Life Balance
Employers need to foster a culture that values productivity and performance rather than face time. Some best practices include:
- Discouraging after-hours work and “martyrdom”.
- Tracking working hours and ensuring proper breaks.
- Role modeling a balanced lifestyle from leadership ranks.
- Providing resources to help manage stress and improve sleep habits.
- Promoting and rewarding employees based on output rather than hours worked.
- Allowing flexible work arrangements where possible.
As more countries and companies shift to a 4-day work week, there is evidence that it can improve productivity, health, and work-life balance.
However, reduced hours alone are not a cure-all. Organizations must holistically create an enabling environment and culture focused on employee well-being.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many hours per week are considered overwork?
Working more than 48 hours per week is generally considered overwork, with increased health risks emerging after 55 hours. However, tolerable working hours can vary based on the nature and intensity of work.
What are the warning signs of overwork health issues?
Frequent headaches, insomnia, constant irritability, lack of concentration, fatigue, weight gain/loss, anxiety, social withdrawal, cardiovascular issues, and depression are some red flags.
Should I see a doctor if I suspect health issues due to overwork?
Yes, it’s advisable to get medical help and advice if you are experiencing any physical or mental health symptoms consistently due to excessive working hours.
What can employees do to avoid burnout from overwork?
Setting boundaries, taking regular breaks, adopting healthy habits, switching off after work hours, taking vacations, delegating tasks, and speaking up about unreasonable deadlines/workloads are some ways to prevent burnout.
How can employers support employee wellbeing regarding working hours?
Tracking overtime, adjusting unrealistic performance expectations, providing EAPs, promoting work-life balance, allowing flexible schedules, hiring more staff, and ensuring employees take vacation time are some best practices for employers.
The Bottom Line
Overwork and long working hours have become far too normalized today, but come at a significant cost to employee health, well-being, and organizational productivity.
While individual employees can take steps to set better work-life boundaries, organizations need to lead the charge in instilling a culture that values balance and prevents excessive overtime.
This will become even more critical as hybrid and remote work arrangements persist in a post-pandemic world. By keeping employee well-being at the core, companies can drive higher engagement, performance, and growth.