Why Overworking Is Bad For Your Health (and Your Career)
There’s no doubt that technology has simplified the way we carry out our day-to-day routines. Computers help us do things faster, emails and text messages let us always be in touch, and the internet makes it easy to find the answer to any question with just a quick Google search.
While being constantly plugged in can make us feel safe, connected, and in-the-know — both at work and at home — it also means we never really clock out.
It’s one thing to pull a long day every once in a while to finish a project or deal with a crisis, but it’s another to routinely stay late at the office or work into the night. That’s chronic overwork — and it can have extremely negative impacts on your health, happiness, and overall quality of life.
But working overtime has become the norm for most people. And, now that multiple offices have embraced remote work, the lines between the end of the work day and the start of personal time can get even blurrier.
It’s one of those things everyone knows is bad for us, but no one really listens. Trouble is, failure to prioritize a healthy balance isn’t just bad for the employees — it’s actually bad for employers, too.
There are numerous research studies out there showing how overwork — and its resulting stress — can lead to many health problems. But, it also impacts your brand’s bigger business too. Read on to learn exactly why it’s bad for health and our performance at work.
Why Overworking is Bad For Your Health
1. It prevents sleep.
Study after study shows that working too much or too late in the day can negatively impact your sleep — whether it’s the resulting stress, the staring at the computer screen, or just not having enough time to unwind before hitting the hay.
Avoiding sleep can cause us to build up “sleep debt.” Essentially, it feels like your energy is overdrawn for days at a time until you get a proper eight hours of sleep.
Chronic sleep debt raises the risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. In the short-term, lack of sleep can have significant effects on the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory creation and consolidation.
Think you’re one of those “lucky people” who can get by fine with only five or six hours of sleep? You probably aren’t. While researchers have found genes in people that enable them to be well rested after less than eight hours of sleep, they also say incidence of either is incredibly rare.
2. Overworking gets in the way of good habits.
Working too much can take a toll on the body and brain in two ways — by boosting stress and by getting in the way of exercise, healthy eating, and other good habits.
For example, when you’re overtired, you rely more on caffeine to get you through the day, you tend to make unhealthy food choices and working out becomes a thing of the past.
Cleveland Clinic reports that stress due to overworking or lack of sleep can cause you to overreat or make poor diet choices. But how does this happen?
First, overworking and lack of sleep slows activity in the areas of our brains responsible for ranking different foods based on what we want and need.
Second, little sleep also causes an increase in the brain’s amygdala, which is responsible for controlling the salience of food. Over time, poor food choices can lead to weight gain and even obesity.
3. Overworking is bad for your heart.
A long-running study of more than 10,000 civil servants in London found that white-collar workers who worked three or more hours longer than a normal, seven-hour day had a 60% higher risk of heart-related problems than white-collar workers who didn’t work overtime. Examples of heart-related problems included death due to heart disease, non-fatal heart attacks, and angina, a condition caused by low blood supply to the heart.
A follow-up study of over 22,000 participants found that people who worked long hours were 40% more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease than those who worked standard hours.
And even after that, reports from health sites like WebMD still tell stories of people who developed heart conditions through overworking.
What about overworking might be causing heart disease, specifically?
The link between overworking and heart disease might have something to do with your personality. In fact, the “Type A vs. Type B” personality test was originally aimed to determine how likely it was that a person would develop coronary heart disease. Considering Type A folks tend to be more competitive, tense, time-oriented, and stressed out — which is often intensified by overworking — their personality type is often associated with a higher risk.
4. It leads to bad habits.
Aside from health risks, research done in the last decade has shown how overworking links to bad habits that are also unhealthy.
Even back in 2015, the Finish Institute of Occupational Health published the largest ever study of the correlation between working patterns and alcohol consumption. In the study, a group of researchers put together a dataset of over 330,000 workers across 14 different countries.
They found that 48 hours of work per week was the magic number: When people worked more than 48 hours per week, they were more likely to engage in “increased risky alcohol use.” Risky alcohol use was defined as more than 14 drinks per week for women and more than 21 drinks per week for men.
Aside from alcohol consumption, researchers have also found that long hours link to bad smoking habits.
And a 2018 paper from Welltory added to the list of bad habits by showing that overworking can also lead to more social media consumption, which can danger your level of stress recover when you’re not working.
5. It causes higher risks for low-income workers.
Way back in 2015, a group of researchers investigated the role of long working hours as a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. They found that the link between longer working hours and type 2 diabetes is apparent in individuals in the low socioeconomic status groups. This was true regardless of age, sex, obesity, and physical activity, and remained even when they excluded shift workers from the analysis. Shortly after, another study showed an association between long hours and type 2 diabetes in low-income workers.
Overall, these findings show how strong of a relationship a person’s mental state can have on physical health.
Why Overworking is Bad for Business
If better health and happiness isn’t enough of an incentive to do something about chronic overwork, it turns out overworking can have a legitimately negative impact on a business’ bottom line. Sarah Green Carmichael of Harvard Business Review calls the story of overwork “the story of diminishing returns”: keep overworking, and you’ll keep making avoidable mistakes and getting lost in the weeds — all while not actually producing more.
6. More input doesn’t necessarily mean more output.
Do longer work hours equate to more work getting done? From time to time, yes — but not when “overtime” becomes “all the time.”
Research by the Business Roundtable found employees saw short-term gains when they pushed their workweek to 60 or 70 hours for a few weeks at a time if, for example, they needed to meet a critical production deadline. But increasing the number of hours worked in the office from 40 to 60 hours doesn’t result in more output: “In fact, the numbers may typically be something closer to 25–30% more work in 50% more time,” writes Sara Robinson for Salon.
Why? Robinson explains that most people do their best work between hours two and six of working in a given day. By the end of an eight-hour day, their best work tends to be behind them — and by hour nine, fatigue begins to set in and productivity levels drop. They won’t be able to deliver to their full potential — especially if they aren’t invigorated by something like a rare, critical deadline — and they’ll end the day completely exhausted.
Interestingly, one study out of Boston University’s Questrom School of Business found that managers actually couldn’t tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours per week and those who just pretended to. What’s more, managers tended to punish employees who were transparent about working less — but there was no evidence that those employees actually accomplished less, nor were there any signs that the overworking employees accomplished more.
7. You’re more likely to make mistakes.
Speaking of exhaustion, researchers have found that overwork — and the resulting stress and exhaustion — can make it far more difficult to do everything that a modern office requires, including interpersonal communication, making judgment calls, reading people, or managing one’s own emotional reactions. Aside from small office slip ups, research from NCBI even shows that overworking can lead to physical injuries in the workplace.
8. You lose sight of the bigger picture.
Have you ever worked on a project so long that you began to obsess over it and forget about everything else related to your role or personal life? Many marketers have been there.
The breaks we take to recharge, eat meals, or spend time with the people we love help us step back from our work and stay mindful of how our work contributes to our goals.
9. Overworking hinders creativity.
As marketers, we’re sought after for our creative and colorful ideas, messaging, and content. But, this type of work takes a lot of time, energy, and open-mindedness.
Unfortunately, lack of sleep, stress, and other issues caused by overworking can drain your energy, motivation, and, ultimately, your level of creativity.
If you want to stay fresh and creative, it’s important to limit your work hours, get a good night’s sleep, and take time off when you feel like your mind is being drained of creative thoughts.
When you do take time off, be sure to keep a notepad or a phone recording app nearby. Sometimes, creative ideas can strike when you’re most relaxed — and you’ll want to take them down somewhere.
10. It makes multitasking harder.
As we mentioned above, overworking raises the risk of making silly mistakes. This risk gets even higher when you’re working on multiple projects all at once.
Multitasking is one of the commodities of a modern marketing role. Each day, we might send out an email, update social media, write a long-form blog post, attend multiple video meetings, and monitor the analytics of what we’re doing.
When you’re tired, low on energy, and not primed to pay attention to detail, it will be harder to complete all of your tasks correctly — let alone one of them.
Who’s to Blame?
Chronically overworking isn’t fun. It doesn’t feelgood;to realize you have to work through yet another family dinner or relaxing weekend.
So why do people do it? Is it because our bosses told us to? Or because we want to make more money? Or do we have some deep-seated psychological need? In her article for Harvard Business Review, Carmichael asks, “who’s to blame?”
In many cultures, bosses want and expect employees to put in long days, make themselves available on email 24/7, and work nights, weekends, and during vacation without protest. In this version, writes Carmichael, we overwork because we’re told to.
This is especially evident in the three countries in which employees work the longest hours of all advanced countries in the world: America, South Korea, and Japan.
… Or ourselves?
Some of us overwork even when our managers don’t want us too, And, truthfully, most of us can’t put all the blame on others.
More often than not, working long hours is a way for us to prove something to ourselves. Maybe working late makes us feel ambitious or important. Maybe it’s because we think it’s the only way to get a promotion, make more money, or avoid falling behind. Maybe we straight up feel guilty when we get up and leave at 5 P.M. Several studies have even shown some of us consider work a safe haven — a place in which we feel confident and in control as compared with stresses outside the office.
And who could blame us? More and more, working beyond normal business hours has become something people brag about. In some cases, it becomes an addiction.
“We live in a competitive society,” writes Laura Vanderkam for The Wall Street Journal, “and so by lamenting our overwork and sleep deprivation — even if that requires workweek inflation and claiming our worst nights are typical — we show that we are dedicated to our jobs and our families.”
Know When It’s Time to Log Off
Sometimes, working long hours can feel rewarding — even invigorating. Other times, especially when we make a habit out of it, it can make us feel stressed, mad, lonely, and generally unhealthy.
The key is paying attention to how it makes you feel. If it’s interfering with your mental, physical, or emotional help, it may be time to reprioritize.
Editor’s Note: This blog post was originally published in June 2016, but was updated for comprehensiveness and freshness in October 2020.