I am currently building my own business. And, as I’m sure you are aware, self-employed people or business owners tend to work a LOT of hours each week. That got me thinking. Is working 60 to 80 hours per week healthy? Am I damaging my physical, emotional, or psychological health by working so much? Well, I think it’s time to find out.
Is working 60 to 80 hours a week healthy? No. Working that many hours is damaging to your health, increasing the risk of stroke, hypertension, and heart attack. It is also psychologically unhealthy, leading to increased anxiety, stress, and depression.
That may be a simple answer. However, there is so much more information I want to share.
I think many of us would consider the Japanese culture to be hardworking and proud of that fact. However, they have a term we should all learn. It is “karoshi,” and it means “death from overwork.” Maybe we all need to learn more about the risks involved.
How Do you Calculate “Working Hours?”
This is a key question. What is a “work hour”? Do we subtract time hanging around the water cooler? How about those interminable meetings where we’re just sitting around?
The experts at Cambridge Dictionary define a work hour as “The amount of time someone spends at work during a day.” All studies utilize the concept of “work hour” to define the number of hours per week an individual is at a paid position. They do not differentiate if you’re talking, surfing the Net on company time, or what have you.
So, consider a 40-hour workweek. You may be “working” slightly more or fewer hours due to scheduled pauses, meetings, coffee breaks, and so on. But in this context, your working hours are 40.
Now that we’ve agreed on the definition of working hours let’s move on to our other concerns.
What are the health risks associated with working over 60 hours per week?
A quick search on the Internet finds all kinds of statements regarding the physical health risks associated with working long work weeks.
The health issues listed include coronary artery disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and increased stress levels.
Coronary Artery Disease
I like to go with scientific sources everyone knows, so let’s start with WebMD. According to this source, working 61 to 70 hours per week increases your risk of coronary artery disease by 42%. Going further, working 71 to 80 hours increases it up to 63%.
Coronary Artery Disease is caused by damage to your major blood carrying vessels, such as your veins and arteries. The primary culprit is a buildup of plaque on the interior of the arteries, caused by high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides.
Over time, this plaque will lead to a narrowing of the vessel, which reduces blood flow. This reduction is seen as high blood pressure. When left untreated, it can lead to shortness of breath, angina, and heart failure.
Why does working long hours lead to coronary artery disease? I’m so glad you asked.
It turns out that stress, like that we experience when working long hours over time, leads to an increase in cortisol.
Cortisol, in turn, leads to an increase in blood cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar. Hence, the increase in plaque discussed previously.
Also of note, heart disease is the number one killer of people worldwide, with more than 500,000 deaths annually in the United States alone.
A stroke is caused by a blood vessel to the brain either (a) bursting or, more commonly, (b) becoming blocked, stopping the blood from reaching this important organ.
Earlier, we discussed how increased cortisol levels, caused by long-term stress, can cause plaques to build up inside blood vessels.
These plaques can build up in the vessels that provide blood and oxygen to the brain, as well.
A blockage in one of these arteries, significantly reducing or stopping blood flow to the brain will result in a stroke. If enough time lapses before blood flow and oxygen can be restored, you have the risk for permanent brain damage, residual disabilities and, even death.
One study found that participants working “long hours” had a 29% increased risk of stroke. Those who worked those long work weeks for ten years or more had a 45% greater stroke risk than those who worked less.
The increased risk was found to be highest among people under the age of 50.
High Blood Pressure
Having discussed increased coronary artery disease and stroke previously, I doubt you’re surprised to see high blood pressure on the increased risk list.
Yep, our old friend cortisol is the culprit here, as well.
Once again, the cortisol increases the production of cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as increasing blood sugars.
These cholesterols and triglycerides like to stick to the interior of your blood vessels, narrowing the diameter and, conversely, increasing the pressure.
Visualize a water hose with water running through. No problems, flow is good. Now, put your finger over the end or pinch the hose partially, the pressure of the water increases, particularly behind the obstruction. This is high blood pressure at its most basic.
One study compared employees who worked 49-hour workweeks to colleagues working 35-hour weeks. Those working 49 or more weekly hours have a 70% greater likelihood of having sustained hypertension (high blood pressure) both within and out of a clinical setting.
As we’ve already discussed, high blood pressure can lead to stroke, heart failure, and death.
What are the psychological risks associated with working over 60 hours per week?
In fact, most people would agree that humans are more than just physical beings. Indeed, good health, for us, includes a body, mind, soul holistic assessment.
We’ve looked at the physical (body) risks associated with working long hours (in excess of 60 work hours per week). What about our psychological (mind) risk? Let’s check that out.
The primary psychological risks associated with long work weeks include stress, anxiety, and depression.
Stress is a word that people tend to use all the time. Do we really know what it means? In a medical or health sense, “stress” means “a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure)”.
To continue, stress can initiate the “fight or flight” mechanism in the brain. This activates a complicated waterfall mechanism involving neurotransmitters and the endocrine system.
Simplified, this waterfall effect can ultimately lead to issues with heart and lung activities, digestive capabilities (including flares of IBS), blood vessel dilation, relaxation of the bladder, inhibition of erection, depression, and anxiety.
The stress associated with long work hours is primarily thought to come from the internal conflict the worker feels between his/her job and their familial obligations. The imbalance between work, family, home, and self, increases the mental tension.
What is anxiety? It is the feeling of fear or apprehension you may feel when under stress. Worrying if the kids are ok, if your wife will be angry, or if the dog needs out. All of those are anxiety feelings when you focus on working long hours.
A study involving 2,960 employees aged 44 to 66 found that employees working 55+ hours per week were 75% more likely to experience feelings of anxiety than colleagues working for the same company that worked only 35-40 hours per week.
Anxiety can leave you distracted and unable to focus. It will affect your work quality and can even affect your personal safety.
The American Psychiatric Association states that depression is a medical illness that negatively affects the way you think, act and feel.
The way in which working those long work weeks can leave you to feel taken advantage of, tired, anxious over your personal life, and lacking in life balance can lead to depression.
The same study mentioned previously, involving 2,960 employees of the same company, also found that employees working 55+ hours per week were 66% more likely to show depressive symptoms than their colleagues working 35-40 hours per week.
Depressive symptoms include:
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Unintentional weight changes due to changes in appetite
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue
- Feeling worthless or guilty with increased thoughts of suicide not uncommon
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
Treatment options include medications, counseling, and group support. If you have or think you have depression, please visit the American Psychiatric Association for a more complete list of symptoms, and please seek treatment.
In the business world, it has long been a source of pride to brag about the long work weeks you dedicate to your employer/job. Perhaps you think it is necessary in order to get ahead. And perhaps you think it is expected. Or you may think by showing your level of dedication, your employer will see you as a “better” employee. And it may all be!
In fact, I can’t discount any of that.
I can only remind you of the Japanese concept of karoshi or death by overwork. And I can also ask you one question….is it worth it?
I myself have had trouble limiting myself and spent years reflecting on my workaholic attitude. If you are as committed to work as I used to be, you may find this other article of mine inspiring: My Half-Day Sabbatical: How To Stop Being A Workaholic. At least I hope it will motivate you to rethink your current relationship to work.