Stop Working So Hard Your Health Depends on It

News bulletin: After reading this article, get offline, go home, take a nap — or if you're lucky enough to be in a warm climate — have a date with the sun. (Wait, it's Friday! aren't you doing this anyway?)


Because working too hard is bad for your health, of course. 

Marianna Virtanen, professor at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (Finland), proved this point with her research in the last few years, which led to this thesis. The title of her work pretty much summed it up: "Long Working Hours and Health in Office Workers: A Cohort Study of Coronary Heart Disease, Diabetes, Depression and Sleep Disturbances."

Checking email at midnight? Heart attacks coming. Putting the finishing touches on that proposal for the morning meeting at 1:30 a.m.? Diabetes is on its way.

Health Factors Beyond Work

Ok, that's a little hyperbolic.

Naturally, when Virtanen did the research with the University College London (UCL), these weren't the final findings. Being on your social collaboration work tool in your comforter doesn't mean guaranteed heart attack, of course.

But it is a good time, we think, to look into working habits in this Unplugged Tube we live and work in today.

The study in London, which looked at the working habits of British civil servants, suggest a link between working long hours and increased CHD (coronary heart disease) risk.  But Virtanen cautioned "more research is needed before we can be confident that overtime work would cause CHD. In addition, we need more research on other health outcomes, such as depression and type 2 diabetes.”

Since the five-year study, Virtanen worked with fellow researchers and published a systematic review and meta-analysis regarding long work hours and coronary heart disease, she told CMSWire. They synthesized all available published studies and found that there might be a higher risk of heart disease among employees working long hours versus those putting out a normal work day.

"We have also published a review on mental health which suggests that prospective studies are scarce and the few studies indicate some ill effects on mental health, especially among women," Virtanen said.

Do We Get Stupid, Too?

In an interview with CMSWire, Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist, New York Times bestselling author and executive coach, said, "We actually get stupider when we work too much." 

Eurich discussed finding the balance between work and relaxation, and how "no one is going to create that balance but yourself." If you don't strike the balance, you'll find your "breaking point," Eurich said.

Virtanen said there is little evidence on the correlation between "getting stupider" and "working too much," although she and fellow researchers did publish one study using the same data set of British civil servants. A cross-sectional study of 248 automotive workers found an association between overtime work and impaired performance on tests attention and executive function.

Workers in the nine-to-12 hour shifts showed "impaired grammatical reasoning and alertness" compared with those working eight-hour days.

What Can We Do?

So what do we do to watch our health as we work? Put in eight-hour days only? Yeah, that's going to work. What is Virtanen's message to the midnight oil-burners?

"Even though they feel it's rewarding, the scope of life might get quite narrow: just work," she said. "Short-term episodes of long working hours are, however, quite normal."

Is there such thing as a balance? Can we actually work hard, produce for our organizations and be healthy and happy?

"To some degree people can organize their work more effectively," Virtanen said. "This is the case in expert jobs, not in those where you don't have so much to say regarding your job."

Title image by PavelSvoboda (Shutterstock).