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A new study has found that working too much could be killing us. In fact, working just one 10-hour day each week could increase your risk of having a stroke by almost 30%. For those who work long hours chronically, the risk increases even more. Working long hours for 10 years or more increases your stroke risk by a whopping 45%.
Are We Working Too Much?
The study, published earlier this month in the AHA journal Stroke, evaluated over 143,000 participants since 2012. Just 2 hours of overtime each week can drastically increase the risk of stroke, the study found. In today’s digital age, where we are always on call and overtime is treated like a badge of honor, we may be unknowingly working ourselves to an early grave.
Americans and Britons may be among the most overworked. While over 130 have created laws restricting the maximum hours in a work week, the U.S. is not among them. A 2014 Gallup poll found that the average American works 47 hours a week. 21% work more than 50 hours a week, and 18% work more than 60 hours a week.
British citizens work longer hours than anyone in the European Union, averaging around 42 hours a week. And nearly half of those workers put in more than an hour of extra time each day, including weekends. Ironically, workers in Denmark are more productive, despite averaging only 37 hour a week.
One of the big issues here is how we use technology.
With all of the digital platforms available and more people working from home than ever before, we just don’t have much down time. One poll found that up to two-thirds of Americans work after hours due to technology. People don’t know how to unplug, and so they find themselves answering emails and taking calls long beyond reasonable working hours.
As it turns out, this is doing more damage than we think.
Working Overtime May Do More Harm Than Good
A heavy workload and an inability to “unplug” can result in stress and unhealthy lifestyle habits. In today’s climate, working overtime is often seen as a badge of honor. Employers send correspondence late into the evening, and employees feel pressure to respond. After all, no one wants to be seen as “not invested.”
To the surprise of many, the study found that the risk of stroke was more pronounced in younger people. But those in elevated positions, including CEOs, owners, and other executives, had a notably lower risk than their subordinates. Long work hours have also been associated with poor mental health, increased anxiety and depression, and disrupted sleep patterns.
With 50% of Americans working more than 40 hours each week, it’s important that we understand how this affects our health and what we can do to fix it. Clocking a few hours of overtime each week or answering a few emails before bed may not seem like a big deal, but the health effects can be disastrous.
Those who work overtime are often doing so digitally.
Excessive screen time can cause a plethora of issues, including eye damage, spinal injuries, and poor sleep. It’s recommended that we spend at least an hour before bed without our devices, and that we leave them outside the bedroom overnight. Yet many workers feel compelled to constantly check their phones, tablets, and computers long into the night. This can be extremely harmful to employee health.
Those who work excessive hours are also less healthy. A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Health Behavior found that working more than 40 hours a week resulted in poor diet. People who work overtime are less likely to make time for healthy meals and exercise, increasing their risk of obesity, stroke, cancer, and other diseases.
This may be worse for employees who rely on technology. Many who work manual labor have designated work hours. They rarely receive calls and emails after work and are generally active over the course of a shift. But those who work desk jobs live a more sedentary lifestyle, which can be worse for your health than smoking. Worse, these employees are more likely to receive work correspondence outside of normal hours, increasing the amount of time they spend working and causing even more sedentary screen time.
Finally, those who regularly work overtime are less productive, and can cost billions. Employee burnout often leads to turnover, which costs U.S. employers an estimated $11 BILLION each year. This turnover can be due to a number of factors, but long hours and an inability to “unplug” rank the highest.
Further studies have shown that employee productivity actually decreases as work hours are extended, with a sharp drop beyond 8 hours.
What You Can Do to Reduce Risk Factors for Stroke
There are two basic ways that you can mitigate your risk of stroke and other disease. The first (and most obvious) is to reduce your working hours. But this isn’t always possible. Long working hours are praised in many industries, meaning there is likely someone with “fresh legs” willing to replace you. As the study showed, CEOs, owners, and other executives are less likely to experience the effects of long hours, suggesting that there is a fundamental disconnect between your experience and that of your boss.
Set Healthy Boundaries
What you can do is set healthy boundaries. This starts on day 1, when most of us are willing to promise almost anything to get the job. Be clear about your limits and expectations. Are you available on weekends? How often? Are you expected to respond to emails or calls at all hours of the day? Setting clear expectations will benefit both you and your employer.
Make clear distinctions between your personal time and work time. Whether you are paid hourly or salary, you should be very clear about what time is yours and what time is the company’s. It can be hard when the boss sends out an email at 9pm and another employee gets to be the “hero” by responding quickly. But this sets a precedent that you are constantly available, which isn’t fair to you or your boss.
Protect your personal time and address people who cross those boundaries immediately. This can be done without anger or resentment, but it is important to address encroachment into your personal time quickly and directly.
Adopt a Healthy Lifestyle
The second way to protect your health is all about lifestyle. For many of us, working long hours is unavoidable. You may work more than one job, you may not have many alternative options, or you may work in an industry that simply demands the extra time. You can still protect your health by prioritizing healthy habits.
The most important thing is to focus on diet. It can be really easy to dig into that box of donuts in the morning or call for pizza delivery at the end of a long day. Even snacking is more common among those who work longer hours. Make time for healthy meals and snacks. This might mean waking up a bit earlier or prepping your meals for the week ahead of time. But it will pay off.
Poor nutrition is one of the leading causes of disease – but the right nutrition can help you get healthy and stay healthy. The next thing is to stay active. That’s not an easy ask for those of us who are trapped at a desk all day. But making time for even small breaks throughout the day can make a huge difference. Just a 10-minute walk every 2 hours can significantly increase your health. Even more importantly, make time before or after work to get moving. This could be a trip to the gym or a hike with the dog, but it’s absolutely vital, especially for those working over 40 hours a week.
It’s also important to make time for prayer and meditation. There is a connection between long work hours and poor mental health – and stress can be a major factor when it comes to disease. Before you start your day, during your midday break, and after completing your work, take time to reset and reflect.
Finally, get away from your devices. Setting boundaries is an important step. Your coworkers need to know that you are unavailable during certain hours. Make time for activities that don’t involve your phone or computer. Wait until morning to check your email and leave your phone in the other room while you sleep.
Long work hours may be necessary at times, but you can reduce your risk! Set boundaries, prioritize a healthy diet, and make time for physical and emotional health.
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