Toy skeleton sitting at a desk with a laptop, talking on a smartphone to depict overworking.
Image: Burhan Bunardi/Shutterstock

Are we in danger of working ourselves to death?

20 Jun 2018

Hyper-productivity and always being switched on has become the norm for a lot of people. But at what point can it become lethal?

While it’s certainly not the case for everyone, an average working week is some version of 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

However, getting two days off to recharge the batteries only started a little more than 100 years ago or so. The first noted instance in the US was in 1908, when a New England cotton mill wanted to ensure that Jewish workers would not have to work on the Sabbath.

More famously, Henry Ford began shutting down his factories for the entire weekend in 1926, with many attributing the five-day work week to Ford.

However, just because we have our weekends and there are provisions in place for maximum working hours, it doesn’t mean we’re safe from overworking.

In fact, death by overworking is so common in Japan that they have their own word for it: karoshi. A white paper on karoshi found that as many as one in five employees are at risk of death from overworking.

Death by overwork

The most recent case that came to light was Miwa Sado, a 31-year-old employee who worked for Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK. She logged 159 hours of overtime and only took two days off in the month leading up to her death.

Though she died in July 2013 from karoshi, her case was only made public by her former employer in October last year. Sado’s death, and many others like it, has led to increased pressure on the Japanese government to address the serious issue of death by overwork. However, the Japanese aren’t the only ones that need to worry about overworking.

Last week, data released by CV-Library found that almost half of Irish workers feel that elements of their work have made them feel anxious or depressed.

‘It’s not as simple as counting the number of hours worked in a week’

Earlier this year, a study published in an American Association for Cancer Research journal found that long-term night shift work among women increased the risk of cancer by 19pc.

Furthermore, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer believes the workplace is the fifth-leading cause of death in the US – ahead of Alzheimer’s and kidney disease.

Pfeffer’s research shows that the mismanagement of workforces causes more than 120,000 deaths a year. He cites conditions such as excessive work hours, family conflict, lack of health insurance, and lack of control and autonomy as the problems behind it.

Giving up our own hours

There has even been pushback in recent years against top tech companies offering perks such as free dinners in the evening, with many accusing such temptations as a ruse to keep employees working longer hours.

There’s no denying that society has been steamrolling towards peak productivity. There has been a mentality for years that coming in early, staying late and working through lunch means you are getting more done and, therefore, are a more valuable employee.

If you’re salaried, what it really means is you’re giving away some free labour, and employers can often be naturally inclined to take you up on your very generous offer.

This is not new information. This has been spoken about for a long time, and one of the best ways of challenging those who feel an uncontrollable need to put in extra time is this: have you ever considered the idea that those extra hours of work don’t mean you’re a harder worker, but could actually prove that your time management skills leave a lot to be desired?

It sounds harsh, but if you can’t get all your work done in your normal working day, one of two things is happening: you’re either not utilising your time properly, or someone (either you or your employer) expects the impossible.

Either way, something’s got to give. Because, here’s the other important argument against all of this extra work: it’s not only causing exhaustion, sleep deprivation, loss of quality in your work and burnout – it’s actually killing you.

Working long hours v overworking

There’s another side to the idea of overworking and what exactly leads to burnout. It’s not as simple as counting the number of hours worked in a week.

If that were true, perhaps every solicitor and doctor in the world would be suffering from extreme burnout, while no part-time employee ever would, and this is simply not the case.

Someone who works 65 hours a week but finds it easy to switch off is less likely to burn out than someone who works 40 hours a week but can never seem to stay away from their emails.

Research from the Harvard Business Review sought to pick apart what exactly it is about work that is bad for our health. The research found that work hours were not related to any health issues, while workaholism was.

“Specifically, employees who worked long hours (typically more than 40 hours a week), but who did not obsess about work, did not have increased levels of RMS, and reported fewer health complaints than employees who demonstrated workaholism.”

Unsurprisingly, work-related rumination will lead to anxiety, stress and sleep problems as well as raised blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The research also found that workaholics who love their job are less at risk than those who don’t love it but still obsess about it.

However, it’s worth noting that even if you are a self-professed workaholic who loves their job, or you work very long hours but believe you’re able to switch off, you’re not out of the woods.

As the study only examined working weeks up to 65 hours, it doesn’t mean that working beyond that level won’t be severely detrimental to your health – especially if karoshi is anything to go by.

Battling workaholism

So, how do you protect yourself against the health dangers around overworking and workaholism? First, you need to recognise the signs.

Do you feel guilty for not working, even after you’ve clocked off? Do you find yourself checking your work emails in the evenings and at weekends? Do you feel stressed when you’re prohibited from doing your work?

While not a recognised medical condition, workaholism has become less of a buzzword and more of serious condition in recent years.

Your body is likely to tell you when you need to slow down with work and it’s imperative that you listen to those warnings before you suffer from burnout.

Take steps to destress at every opportunity. Train yourself to switch off from work once you leave the office.

Finally, if you really think your workaholism is getting out of hand, Workaholics Anonymous is a fellowship based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model that helps its members stop working compulsively. They have face-to-face meetings all around the world, but there are also phone and online meetings.

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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