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Are You Working Too Hard?

If you're overworking, now is a good time to speak up or move on.

Key points

  • Overwork can take a toll on your health.
  • Long hours may be linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, prediabetes, and depression.
  • With low unemployment, you may have more choices for work now.
Robin Higgins/Pixabay
Source: Robin Higgins/Pixabay

If you know that you're overworking and think you'd have more flexibility or time off in a different position, now is a great time to talk to your employers or move on. You may have more choices than you'd guess.

Americans are hard-working—perhaps too much so. Men employed full-time worked a bit over 9 hours a day in 2021, on average, and women 8.3 hours, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But those averages include people who really stretch the day out. Overall, Americans work more hours than people in most of the other developed countries.

Some people have no choice. They need to work two or three jobs to pay the rent or mortgage or help family. Some of us are ambitious or just feel pressured. You may be in a bad cycle; it's easy to put everything into your work—dropping hobbies and friends—and then keep plugging away because free time is depressing. Our work culture discourages time off. The United States is the only industrialized country that has no national laws guaranteeing paid sick days, paid leave for new parents, or yearly vacation. In Spain, by contrast, employees get 25 days of vacation and 14 in paid extra holidays.

Things may change now that the United States has record lows in unemployment.

Until now, hours have been increasing: A study of more than 3 million workers in North America, Europe, and the Middle East concluded that the average working day had grown by 48 minutes.

Too much work can wear you down. Long hours, usually defined as more than 45 or 55 hours a week, may be linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, prediabetes, and depression. So how many Americans work hard enough to hurt their health? According to a Gallup poll, 12 percent of workers say they work more than 60 hours a week, and another 29 percent say they work between 45 and 59 hours.

People actually die from overwork. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that the number of people who died from heart disease or stroke because they worked 55 or more hours a week has jumped dramatically, and came to 745,000 people in 2016. But it’s sometimes hard to prove the connection: Other evaluations report that there is “inadequate evidence” to link overwork to several harms, including stroke and depression.

Lukas Bieri/Pixabay
Source: Lukas Bieri/Pixabay

How can you actually use this? If you love your work, you may scoff at studies that report the bad effects of long hours on big populations. Think about your habits. Even for the most enthusiastic workers, long hours tend to mean eating late or less healthily and less sleep, exercise, de-stressing, and time with people you care about.

If you’re stressed out and overworking, look for ways to cut back your hours and—you guessed it—stay on a good diet and increase all those healthy activities, like exercise.

In the short term, your body responds to stress by pumping out hormones that may increase your blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar. Over time, heart disease and a host of other health issues may develop.

For motivation to have a talk with your boss, here’s some of the evidence that overworking taxes your health:

Cardiovascular Risk

The WHO study mentioned earlier found that working 55 hours or more bumps up your stroke risk by 35 percent and your chance of dying of heart disease by 17 percent.

In a study of more than 12,000 adults in China, both women and men who worked 56 hours a week or more had about a 37-percent-higher risk of hypertension over 22 years. In a Swedish study with data on more than 740,000 people, researchers concluded that people who work 55 hours or more increase their risk of heart disease by 12 percent and by 21 percent for stroke.

Mental Health

A study of more than 2,000 British civil servants found that those working 11 hours or more a day were more likely to fall into a major depression within 5 years.

In other research using the same British population, the scientists gave participants tests of their memory and reasoning at the beginning of the study and five years later. People working 11 hours or more were more likely to show mental decline.

Several studies confirm the obvious: People who work long hours tend to get less sleep and often have sleep problems.


People who stare at computers too long are at greater risk of developing dry eye, blurred vision, and headaches. Most of the population runs into low back pain at some point, usually because of the way they sit or stand while working. The problem is developing at younger ages.

In Japan, the problem of working yourself to death, called “karoshi,” was first identified in the 1990s. Now the rest of the world is starting to pay attention, and WHO has recommended laws and bargaining agreements to limit work hours while addressing poverty.

Japan has a culture in which people are afraid to take off: About half of all workers don’t use the paid leave to which they’re entitled. Families can receive compensation in karoshi cases. A case study by the International Labour Organization, an agency of the United Nations, lists some typical scenarios:

  • “Mr A worked at a major snack food processing company for as long as 110 hours a week (not a month) and died from heart attack at the age of 34. His death was approved as work-related by the Labour Standards Office.
  • “Mr B, a bus driver, whose death was also approved as work-related, worked more than 3,000 hours a year. He did not have a day off in the 15 days before he had [a] stroke at the age of 37.
  • “Mr C worked in a large printing company in Tokyo for 4,320 hours a year including night work and died from stroke at the age of 58. His widow received a workers’ compensation 14 years after her husband’s death.
  • “Ms D, a 22-year-old nurse, died from a heart attack after 34 hours’ continuous duty five times a month.”

People are also sometimes judged to have committed suicide because of job stress, a phenomenon called “karojisatsu.”

A version of this post also appears at Your Care Everywhere.

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