The very real dangers of overworking
Our world today is not an easy one, and one of the greatest stresses in our lives comes from the job front. The corporate world in particular can at times be a very ugly one, and to get ahead – to even keep up – we often find ourselves logging far too many hours.
While the 40-hour work week is a reality for a large number of us, it is for others nothing but wishful thinking. The 50-hour, 60-hour, and even 70-hour work week is all too common nowadays.
But whether we choose to put in those number of hours or not, that really is no kind of life, and it will most likely take its toll on our health. And there’s another aspect of all this to consider nowadays: Because of modern technology, our working hours are not over when we leave the office. In this always-on culture, people are working just about everywhere and anywhere outside of the office, with an expectation from others that we are constantly reachable. This is a pressure our predecessors simply did not have to deal with.
Overworking and poor health
In the 1960s there were numerous studies that clearly linked long working hours to a higher risk of cardiovascular issues. And studies have been carried out that show direct links to specific additional hours and higher risk for various illnesses.
For example, a study has shown that people who worked more than 55 hours a week are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, while those that worked 61-70 hours a week have a 42% higher risk of heart disease.
“Keep an eye on yourself. Know when to stop – and have the discipline to stop”
And as is to be expected, the negative effects of working long hours can be found not just in our physical health, but in our mental well-being as well. A study on automotive workers drew the link between working a large number of consecutive days or overtime shifts and susceptibility to depression; and a Canadian study focusing on women found greater risk for depression where longer working hours were the norm.
There is also the all-too-common vicious circle whereby one unhealthy habit leads to other unhealthy habits. In this case the usual negative lifestyle choices follow for many: Specifically, individuals who work longer hours are often more likely to engage in risky alcohol consumption, putting them at an increased risk for alcohol-related health problems such as liver disease, mental disorders, and heart disease. Other common vices for the over-worker include smoking and poor eating choices. Those spending long hours working or in the workplace also tend to be less physically active.
Just how much are we working?
The unenviable stats coming out of the United States today show that more than four in 10 full-time employed Americans are working more than 50 hours a week, and according to a recent Gallup poll the average working hours among the total adult full-time employed population sits at 47 hours a week.
And of course it is not just the long hours, but job satisfaction – or lack thereof – that can be a huge risk factor for us. A rather sobering statistic reveals that heart attack rates in the United States are highest on Mondays, suggesting a link not just to the anticipation of stressful events that may lie ahead for the week, but also suggesting that job satisfaction is in fact an independent risk factor for cardiometabolic disease.
While there is a scarcity of official data on working habits in the UAE, it’s probably safe to say this ever-growing city has its fair share of people putting in some serious hours. I have come across various studies that take a look at job satisfaction, but the results are conflicting, with some suggesting a good level of satisfaction and others suggesting a rather low level.
Among my clients here – who come from across the UAE and indeed across the Gulf – I see quite a mix, but in general I do find a slightly better balance of life here among the professional workforce than that which I witnessed as a physician in the United States (where I previously practiced for more than 25 years).
Can you find the balance?
I do believe that, for the most people, working these long hours is a choice. It can be avoided. But it is one of those things that develops into a habit of sorts, and we fool ourselves into thinking it is the only way.
It’s a fine line between working hard and being a workaholic. So how do you know which side of the line you fall on? In general, workaholics are working for the sake of working, often not accomplishing much more than their non-workaholic counterparts – nor are they necessarily more efficient. They may be using it as an escape from another part of their lives. Some even argue that being a workaholic is a disease comparable to alcoholism (although there is much debate surrounding this).
It seems though that the internal regulator that is in play when we’re simply “working hard” is absent when we’re “overworking.” In other words, we don’t know when to stop.
Keep an eye on yourself. Know when to stop – and have the discipline to stop – and ensure that you’re not slipping into bad health habits such as drinking excessively and smoking, not getting proper sleep, and not exercising. While human beings are capable of incredibly intense periods of work, over the long term there must be a balance.
So find that balance and keep it. I’ve seen it often with my clients: It’s usually a choice the individual only has to make once. It’s as if to say: “I only have this one life, and I am not going to spend too much of it working.” It doesn’t mean we still don’t need to work hard. It just means the days of far too regular overworking are a thing of the past.
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.