HEALTH NEWS

Can You Really Work Yourself to Death?

Written by Carolyn Abate on October 16, 2017

The death of a Japanese woman after she worked a huge amount of overtime has raised questions about the health problems associated with working too much.

working to death

The report may have shocked some American workers.

It was revealed earlier this month that a 31-year-old Japanese woman had died because she had worked too much.

The journalist had just two days off in the month leading up to her death in 2013.

It wasn’t the first time a Japanese citizen has died from overwork.

In fact, the country has a special term to describe this phenomenon: “karoshi.”

In the United States, stories about people dying directly from overwork are rare.

But it happens, according to Brigid Schulte, founding director of The Good Life Initiative and author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.”

“People need to understand how dangerous overwork is to our health,” she told Healthline. “It’s making us sick.”

Hard work is the cornerstone of American values, she noted.

It’s been that way since our Founding Fathers first got the notion to establish the United States.

But in 2017, it’s also killing us.

The long work hours that many people log on a regular basis are associated with an excess of 120,000 deaths per year, Schulte said.

A variety of health issues

The health issues that arise from working too many hours are numerous.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cardiovascular diseases, musculoskeletal disorders, psychological disorders, suicide, cancers, ulcers, and impaired immune function are the top health issues associated with feeling overworked.

A study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine drew a direct correlation between the hours that people work in a week and the risk of heart attack.

People who worked 55 hours a week were 16 percent more likely to develop risk for heart attack when compared to those who worked 45 hours a week. People who put in a 65-hour workweek saw their risk increase by 33 percent.

A 2014 study by the journal Psychosomatic Medicine said those with high job strain had a 45 percent higher chance of developing diabetes than those with low job strain.

Feeling overworked can also wreak havoc on your mental health. Stress is correlated with 75 percent to 90 percent of medical visits, according to the American Institute of Stress. It’s estimated to cost the U.S. economy approximately $600 billion annually.

All work and no play

Schulte contends that Americans live by the motto “work hard, play hard.” But around 1980, the notion of “work hard” started to take on a new meaning. Now we don’t even play hard, she noted.

Today, job sectors such as finance, law, and technology appear to demand that employees give their lives to their job.

What’s more, studies show that working extra hours all the time doesn’t really do much to boost a company’s bottom line, Schulte noted.

For example, Japan is known for its long work days, but the country has one of the lowest productivity rates. Norway, which boasts an average workweek of 37.5 hours, has some of the highest productivity rates. The productivity in the United States is on par with France, which also has a workweek with less than 40 hours.

She said in countries such as Norway or Denmark, people who work late aren’t viewed as dedicated. In fact, it’s the opposite.

“If you can’t get your work done on time, you’re viewed as inefficient,” she said.

Dedicating your life

The corporate world isn’t the only place where employees feel pressure to work long hours, according to Rebecca Aced-Molina, a leadership coach.

Her clients are women, usually in their early 30s, who have new positions of authority within the nonprofit sector.

She said most of her clients come to her because they already have stress and other serious health issues associated with the pressures of work.

Aced-Molina said the nature of the industry lends itself to the idea that people must give it their entire selves for work to be completed.

“Their projects are underfunded, there’s not a lot of regulation, expectations are all over the place,” she said. “There’s no end.”

Her job is get these women to set boundaries.

This means simple steps, such as not bringing their laptop home at night, so their workload doesn’t continue to consume their lives.

By letting go a bit, she added, they can do wonders for both their physical and mental health.

“I want them to remember that their suffering doesn’t serve the world,” Aced-Molina said.

How to handle stress

Stress is something we all hear about, think about, talk about — especially when it comes to work.

But stress, according to Heidi Hanna, PhD, executive director of the American Institute of Stress, also serves a purpose.

“Stress, pressure, tension all exist to help us adapt and grow stronger, and we need them to continue to evolve in a positive way,” she told Healthline. “Stress is not the enemy, and we don’t want it to go away. The key is building in adequate rest and recovery to balance out the stress in our lives, and keep it from becoming a chronic condition of overwhelm.”

She said people can develop strategies when they feel overworked and stress starts to take hold. Working hard for a stretch of time is great, but make sure to give yourself time to recover.

“Like building up physical muscles, if you work out the same muscles day after day, you’ll break them down and over train and find yourself having injuries along the way, until you just can’t do it anymore,” she said. “The brain is the same.”

To help people cope with work-related stress overload, Hanna recommends three key steps:

  • Make it habit to take breaks. Each hour, set aside 3–5 minutes to get up, walk around, listen to music, or get some fresh air.
  • Find ways to make work mobile. Talk a walk when you take a call. Go visit a colleague at their desk instead of sending an email.
  • Find humor. Create a folder where you keep images, videos, and other items you find funny. Turn to it throughout the day to help you ease your stress. Also, ask family members, especially kids, about a funny moment in their day. You’ll start to see a more resilient mindset take shape.
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