Work culture has drastically changed over the last few decades. People are now willing to work harder and longer due to the ever-rising competition both within the workplace and between companies. Everyone wants to prove they are the best fit for bigger roles and responsibilities, have drive and passion, and all the makings of a successful leader—and so most of us end up with long working hours without really thinking of the health hazards that may follow.
But just stop for a minute and really think about the stress and sleepless nights, the inability to take care of yourself—eating the wrong things, smoking, drinking—and not devoting time for workouts. If this is truly your day-to-day life, then you need to STOP!
The human body is a mystery we have been trying to decode for centuries. While a lot more research still needs to happen to understand the nitty-gritties, one thing has been proven over and over again: long working hours, and their associated behaviours, have an adverse effect on our bodies. In fact, according to the WHO, people who work for 55 hours or more per week tend to have a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of succumbing to ischemic heart disease. A 2015 study from researchers at Harvard and Stanford—published in the peer-reviewed journal Behavioral Science & Policy—also goes on to suggest that working long hours can increase your mortality by a whopping 20%.
What happens to the mind and body during long working hours?
There has been much research over the years that have documented the effects of long working hours on the body. Studies suggest that things that are associated with stress, like the kind of long working hours that puts us at the risk of, can lead to:
- Cardiovascular diseases and stroke: Working more than 55 hours a week can increase your chance of developing heart disease by 17% and stroke by 35%. Long work hours can cause stress and anxiety that can increase the level of cortisol in the body. It can also prime you for harmful habits—like smoking, binge eating, and drinking—in order to cope with the stress of your workload.
- Mental fatigue: Chronic stress can lead to fatigue, hormonal imbalances, cognitive issues (thinking, reasoning, judgements etc.), unstable relationships, and poor social support.
- Substance abuse: We often rely on harmful substances like cigarettes and alcohol to cope with stress. This damages the respiratory system, heart, and liver—and even leads to dementia.
- Sleep disturbances: Stress is a big impediment to sound sleep at night, often leading to disturbed sleep and even insomnia. Thus, it can lead to changes in the circadian rhythm which influence hormones like melatonin, cortisol, and thyroid. A lack of sleep can also impact your performance at work—proving to be counterproductive.
- Mental health disorders: Long working hours can increase the incidence of anxiety and depression. It can also lead to negative thought patterns and behaviours such as procrastination and perfectionism that can influence your performance on the job.
How to avoid long working hours?
There is enough data to show that a work-life balance is of the utmost importance if you want to live a long, healthy life. After all, while work is important—giving yourself enough time to rest, rejuvenate, be physically active, and spend time with people who love and support you is equally crucial. The moment your life outside of work starts getting affected, your level of job satisfaction and performance at work will start dwindling too.
In short, maintaining a work-life balance is important to not only be more productive at work but also for your health. Here are a few tips to help you reach this much-desired state of being:
- Organize and plan: The first thing you can do is plan and organize your schedule. Take out 15 minutes in the morning before you start work and see what all tasks are important, lengthy, or highly demanding—and finish them off when you start your day. Then move on to the less important and easy tasks, especially in the middle of the day since that’s when we tend to feel lethargic the most.
- Take breaks: This is important to give your mind some rest from the work at hand. When we are focused on a task our higher thinking skills are working overtime, and it is essential for them to have a cool-off period of 10-15 minutes where we don’t engage in cognitive tasks. It can also help us view the tasks from different angles. You can spend your break time by meeting your colleagues, taking a walk, or taking a power nap.
- Self-care: Taking care of yourself is not only the best way to ensure a healthier and longer life—but also a better performance at work. Even if you work a desk job, unhealthy habits can come in the way of your cognitive performance. So dedicating 30 minutes a day to yourself to exercise, planning your weekly diet so that you don’t have to worry every day about what food to prepare, getting at least seven hours of sleep, and spending quality time with your loved ones are some things to start with. In the long run, your body and mind will thank you for incorporating these small daily habits.
- Learn to say no: We want to prove our worth and are willing to expend ourselves so that we can get that pay raise or promotion. But saying yes to a lot of things leads to biting off more than what you can chew. Take on new tasks but ensure you can manage it with your existing work. Delegating can also help. By delegating you can reduce your workload and focus on things you are good at. When the opportunity comes, you can always learn to understand how to work on the things you don’t know from someone who does so that next time you are better prepared for it.
- Talk to your employer: This is important before you take on any new responsibilities. Understand the job requirements and know your skillset. There will always be things you learn on the job, while some things may be completely new to you. But if it’s not in alignment with what you are looking for, it may be an indication to look for something that fits you.
It is not only important to work hard but to work smart as well. We need to understand what we are looking for in a job, what our goals and values are, and match it with the company we will work for in future or are already working with. Many companies after the pandemic are being more sensitive to their employees’ health and well-being but this is a starting step. There are many things you can do to ensure your productivity and your health so that both aren’t compromised.