Overworking can be described as working beyond your capacity and more than your regular working hours.

There are various reasons why we work too hard. We either have a workload, a deadline that’s approaching or this is how we demonstrate our enthusiasm.

In this blog post, you’ll find out everything about overworking:

  • Its main symptoms and social aspects
  • How overworking impacts your health and business
  • Practical tips on how to reduce stress caused by overworking

Overworking cover

What are the symptoms of overworking?

“It takes wisdom to gain wealth without losing health.”

–  Mokokoma Mokhonoana

If we’re striving for excellence at the workplace, be it a promotion, a better reputation, or any other reason, we’ll have to work hard. Unfortunately, this “all work and no play” concept makes us overwhelmed and can lead to serious illnesses, or even death.

Now and then, you might need to stay an hour or two longer at work, to finish an important project.

But, be careful and try not to make a habit out of staying late, because that habit can develop into a condition called overworking.

Additional working hours and spending too much time at the office can make you feel overwhelmed. Besides tiredness, there are many other side effects of working overtime. That’s why you should be able to identify the most common signs of overworking and start dealing with them.

The most common symptoms of overworking are:

  1. Lack of energy
  2. Insomnia
  3. Ignoring sleep
  4. Feeling distracted
  5. Weak immune system
  6. Bad mood
  7. Gaining or losing weight
  8. Balancing work and social life seems impossible

1. The lack of energy caused by overworking

Working extra hours during the week will oftentimes leave you feeling exhausted.

Tips for dealing with the lack of energy:

  • Try to isolate your work from your personal life.
  • Think about your priorities and organize your tasks accordingly – the most important ones are for the beginning of the day. If you run out of time, don’t worry, the less important assignments can wait until tomorrow.
  • Try to analyze how much time you need for each task, by using the work hours tracker. When it comes to those more time-consuming tasks – do them in the morning, when you’re fresh.
  • When you’re having a day off, let your work be off, too. Don’t check your emails, too.

2. Insomnia

Even though you’re tired, you can’t fall asleep, because your brain is still processing all the data from that day.

Tips for dealing with insomnia: 

  • Try meditating or doing some yoga.
  • Have a cup of warm tea. You can choose between chamomile, lavender, rooibos red, passionflower, mint tea or any similar.

3. Ignoring your sleep deprivation

It’s late at night and you’re trying to finish the final part of your assignment. Even though you’re tired, you choose not to sleep. And there you are, making another cup of coffee to keep you awake.

Tip for dealing with sleep deprivation: 

  • You might need to rethink your decision. Consider going to bed, but set your alarm for a bit earlier in the morning than usual. Sleep will help you get some rest and you’ll be able to focus in the morning. Thus, you’ll finish your assignment on time.

4. Feeling distracted

When you feel overworked, you find it difficult to focus, and start forgetting even the smallest things like names and dates. This happens when you have a lot on your plate on a daily basis, so your brain has to process more data. As a result, you aren’t able to focus and you feel distracted.

Tips for staying focused:

  • This one is an oldie but goldie – you need to get a good night’s sleep (at least 7 hours of sleep).
  • Start writing down everything that’s important – a to-do list, a meeting schedule, a shopping list, etc.
  • Set a timer whenever you need a reminder for an important meeting. For example, 30 minutes before the meeting, so that you can prepare.

5. Your immune system is weak

Anxiety, headaches, chest pains, stomach issues – all can be tied to having a stressful, overwhelmed lifestyle. Stress can also weaken your immune system, which means that your body won’t be able to defend itself from sickness.

Tips for boosting your immune system:

  • Take a break whenever you can and get as much sleep as you can.
  • Try to incorporate more vitamins into your daily diet. Choose citrus fruits, almonds, and other immune system boosters.

6. You’re in a bad mood

You feel under pressure and anxious. That’s because working late for hours can truly influence your mood.

Tip for improving your mood:

  • Even when you’re passionate about your job, be sure to have some time to unwind. Having a cup of coffee with your friends or going to the movies can help you relax.

7. You’re gaining or losing weight

Did you skip your meal because you didn’t have time to eat? Or maybe you’ve ordered some junk food for the fifth time this week? Whichever the case, these bad eating habits can surely affect your health.

Tips for having a healthy diet:

  • In the evening, find some time to prepare at least one healthy meal for tomorrow – either breakfast or lunch. Be sure to add some fruit to your lunch box, too. Try to avoid or at least limit your fast food intake.
  • When at work, be sure to always take a lunch break. Even if you’re busy, you can easily squeeze these 15-20 minutes into your schedule.

8. Balancing your work and social life seems impossible

You’re working late almost every day and your social life is starting to fade. Spending some time with your loved ones seems impossible because of your work.

Tips for improving your work-life balance: 

  • Your social life is as important as your work. Whenever you can, try seeing your friends in person, but even if you can’t, a few phone calls with them will make your day. Remember, your friends will support you in times of trouble. Time spent socializing can definitely make you less stressful.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) did research on how each country balances its work and social life. The study was focused on analyzing these factors: working hours, time for leisure and personal time, the employment rate of mothers in the 35 OECD member states plus Russia, Brazil, and South Africa.

Work life balance graph

Netherlands, Italy, and Denmark had the highest rankings (9 and above, out of 10) in 2019. On the contrary, Colombia, Mexico, and Turkey had the lowest rankings. The goal of this study was to point out that “long work hours may impair personal health, jeopardize the safety and increase stress”.

In regards to overworking, there were certain EU countries that haven’t been granting overtime hours to their employees. This issue was resolved when the European Union’s highest court regulated the EU Time Tracking Law  – that all employers must track time for all their employees. That includes daily working hours, not just overtime.

Overworking and its social aspects

One of the serious problems that our society is facing today is overworking. The fact that there have been many cases of death caused by overworking speaks for itself. There are even new phrases that describe the consequences of working beyond your limits.

But, it wasn’t always like this. During the 19th century, the number of regular working hours was higher than 40 per week. Labor unions have started to change this standard during the 1920s and 1930s.

Fulfilling the dream of working 40 hours per week wasn’t a breeze.

The history of 40-hours working standard

When it comes to the number of working hours per week, there are certain standards to follow. The Fair Labor Standards Act regulates that employees must get at least minimum wage and may not be working for more than 40 hours in a week. Thus, staying late at the office and working more than 40 hours counts as overworking.

So, how did 40-hours per week become a standard? Let’s take a walk through history:

  • In 1817, Robert Owen, an 18th century Welsh mill owner and labor rights activist, invented the phrase “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”
  • In 1866, the National Labor Union requested the Congress to pass an eight-hour workday law. They haven’t succeeded, but they’ve continued to fight for workers’ rights.
  • In 1926, there was an important breakthrough – Henry Ford, an owner of Ford Motor Company decided to reduce the number of working hours from 48 to 40 per week. Instead of working six days a week, his employees got the five days working schedule.
  • In 1938, Congress authorized the Fair Labor Standards Act, which demanded employers to grant overtime to all employees who worked more than 44 hours in a week.
  • In 1940, this act was modified and the 40-hour workweek evolved into U.S. law.

Burnout and its consequences

Back in 1974, a German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger invented the term “burnout” – the physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress. In 2000, the World Health Organization listed burnout in its publication “Mental health and work: Impact, issues and good practices”. They filed burnout as one of the causes of mental health problems in the workplace.

The most severe case of burnout is death. In Japan, there’s even the phrase “karoshi” – “death by overwork”. The first case of this condition was reported in 1969. This phenomenon has soon become a social problem not just in Japan, but also in China, South Korea, and Bangladesh.  The number of unfortunate events in Japan has increased. Thus, the Japanese Ministry of Labor started publishing the first statistics about the karoshi issue in 1987.

The International Labor Organization noted the following as the most common causes of karoshi:

  1. Mr. A was working in the leading snack food processing company for 110 hours a week. The cause of death: a heart attack at the age of 34.
  2. Mr. B was a bus driver who has worked more than 3,000 hours a year. The cause of death: a stroke and the age of 37. It’s important to point out that he didn’t have a day off in the 15 days before he had the stroke.
  3. Mr. C was an employee of a large printing company in Tokyo. He has worked for 4,320 hours a year (including night work). The cause of death: a stroke at the age of 58.
  4. Ms. D was a nurse. The cause of death: a heart attack. She has been having a 34 hours continuous duty five times a month.

But, the work culture in Japan is starting to change. Last year, the Japanese government published a white paper (a government report) on overwork and karoshi. The purpose of this document: all industries should endorse more effective measures to reduce deaths. Additionally, the Japanese health ministry has presented the “karoshi line” concept. There is a defined level of overwork and if a person passes that level, he or she will be at serious risk of a potentially fatal illness.

Overworking and your health

How does overworking affect your physical and mental health?

“This stress from work caused a number of serious health issues for me, including high blood pressure, migraines, mild insomnia, and ulcers. I was so focused on my work and getting ahead in my career that I made no effort to manage my stress or discuss the situation with my boss – I just powered through. I would deal with these stress symptoms on an ad hoc basis as they arose and never addressed the underlying causes until it all became too much and I quit to pursue my new career and website.”  — Lynell Ross,  Founder and Managing Editor of Zivadream.

We all learn from our mistakes. Now and then, we need to remind ourselves that health comes first, then our career, not vice versa.

To make you rethink your work habits, we’ll share with you some of the typical health issues associated with overworking.

In their publication “Overtime and Extended Work Shifts: Recent Findings on Illnesses, Injuries, and Health Behaviors”, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services summed up scientific findings on the relationship between overtime and worker health and safety. There were 22 studies in total. Among these 22, in exactly 16 studies, overtime was linked with “poorer perceived general health, increased injury rates, more illnesses, or increased mortality”.

These are the most common physical and mental health issues caused by overworking, which appear in various scientific studies.

  1. Sleep deprivation

According to a study on the neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation, the lack of sleep influences many types of work performance. For instance, sleep deprivation decreases the ability to concentrate and delays reaction time.

The study on sleep and biological parameters in professional burnout made a comparison between 54 participants with burnout and 86 healthy control participants. One of the fields of their research was the quality of sleep.

The result: Overwhelmed people had much higher insomnia troubles, in total – 41 (75.9%) out of 54 people. On the other hand, only 11 people (12.8%) out of 86 healthy control participants experienced sleep deprivation.

  1. Coronary heart diseases

The research about overtime work and incident coronary heart disease reported that “overtime work adversely affects coronary health”.

This study included 6014 middle-aged British civil servants (4262 men and 1752 women), who were free from coronary heart disease (CHD). The majority of the participants (54%) did not work overtime. These are the stats for those who did have overtime:

  • 21% of them worked approximately one extra hour a day
  • 15% of them worked two extra hours a day
  • 10% of them worked three or four extra hours a day.

The result: This research demonstrated that people who worked 3-4 extra hours per day had a 60% higher risk of heart-related problems, compared to those participants who didn’t work overtime.

  1. Type 2 diabetes

The research about the correlation between long working hours and type 2 diabetes analyzed 222,120 men and women from the USA, Europe, Japan, and Australia.  A total number of 4,963 individuals developed diabetes.

The result: This analysis showed that there is a connection between longer working hours (55 hours or more per week) and type 2 diabetes, but only in people from low socioeconomic status groups.

How to reduce stress and burnout caused by overworking?

If you find your way to cope with stress and burnout, you’re more likely to avoid developing previously mentioned medical conditions. Here are a few ways to help you unwind.

  1. Make a precise schedule

One of the best methods to avoid burnout when working long hours is making a precise schedule. Each workday should start by writing down a to-do list. Think about your tasks for the day: which ones are more or less important and how much time you need for each task. Then, make your list. Let’s say that your assignments are these:

  • Finishing the last part of the project proposal, having a meeting with your team, having a client meeting. These assignments are very important, so you should do them as soon as possible.
  • Delegating new tasks to your team, reviewing the first design proposal, answering your emails and finishing a few leftover tasks. Since these tasks are less important, you can do them later.

Be sure to find some time for your breaks, too. If you organize your entire workday properly, you might be able to avoid staying late.

Here is an example to-do list that includes both your assignments and your breaks.

TO-DO LIST
9 AM TO 10 AM Finishing the last part of the project proposal
10 AM TO 10.45 AM Having a meeting with your team
10.45 TO 11 AM Quick coffee break
11 AM TO 12 PM Having a client meeting
12 PM TO 1 PM Delegating new tasks to your team
1 PM TO 1:30 PM Lunch break
1:30 PM TO 3 PM Reviewing the first design proposal
3 PM TO 4 PM Answering your emails
4 PM TO 5 PM Taking care of a few leftover tasks
  1. Exercise

Many studies have demonstrated that if you exercise on a regular basis, you’ll be more resistant to stress. According to the “Exercise, Stress Resistance, and Central Serotonergic Systems” research, physical activity enhances the way that our body handles stress. Also, exercise impacts neurotransmitters in the brain – dopamine, and serotonin, which are responsible for our happiness.

Going to the gym, running or just taking a walk after work – choose any activity you like. Spending some time exercising will surely help you have a stress-free life.

  1. Take a nap

Didn’t sleep well last night? Or maybe you slept only 4-5 hours? It seems like your job has once again ruined your sleeping routine.

Whenever you’re feeling tired in the afternoon, take a nap. For example, sleeping from 10 to 20 minutes, known as a power nap, makes an excellent power booster. It will also raise your energy levels and help with your creativity.

  1. Invest in your “me time”

Working extra hours leaves you with almost no time to think about your overall mental health. Taking care of your body, mind, and soul is crucial to prevent burnout. Here’s what Joanna K Chodorowska, an intuitive nutrition therapy coach, advises us all to do when we’re overwhelmed:

“Self-care is the solution for the body, the mind, and soul.  We have to eat better, move better and sleep better so we can feel better.  We have to think about ourselves as worthy of self-care as we do need to put our own oxygen mask on.  Self-care is not selfish, it is a necessity which is usually mandated by these health crises from stress, overwhelm and over-tired.”

  1. Socialize

The moments we spend with our family and friends are precious. This is crucial especially when we’re trying to manage working extra hours. So, why do we sometimes let our job get in the way? This is how Amanda Jayne O’Hare, a founder of StrongMamaMoves, feels about this:

“Often we get rid of time with family or friends feeling we are doing ‘what needs to be done’, when in reality we are making ourselves miserable and less productive as a result. Therapy, having designated family and “me time” scheduled in as a priority and looking after physical and mental wellbeing are all brilliant ways of helping this.”

Expert advice on how to reduce overwork

Danni Zhang is a registered psychologist at New Vision Psychology and a member of the Australian Psychological Society. She believes that when people do not allow enough time for their mind and body to rest, psychological symptoms of overworking begin to present themselves.

These may include: 

  • poor sleep
  • tension headaches
  • reduced concentration
  • fatigue
  • becoming frustrated easier
  • feeling stuck.

People who are overworked are also more prone to develop anxiety and depressive disorder as they are not looking after their psychological and physical needs. 

These everyday behaviors include:

  • neglecting social and family relationships
  • lack of exercise
  • adopting a poor diet
  • not getting appropriate sleep
  • and general self-care.”

Here’s what she advises people to do when they’re overwhelmed, both in the workplace and outside of it:

In the workplace: 

Evaluate the workplace and your work environment to see if there is room to reduce workload or extend deadlines. Work with management to adjust the responsibilities of your job.”

Outside the workplace:

  • “Create a list of areas that are important to you aside from work and make a schedule/time for what’s important (e.g., “make time for a 15-minute walk when I wake up every single day”). 
  • Set yourself an alarm or reminder each day at a specific time to put work aside and remember to not engage in work until the following day.
  • Make time to look after your basic needs such as sleep, diet, exercise and relationships (i.e., spending time face-to-face to talk to each other, and listening!).”

Michael Hilgers is a therapist in private practice in Austin, Texas. He’s working almost exclusively with attorneys and entrepreneurs.

As Michael points out, overworking is probably the biggest contributor to burnout.

A lot of his clients are dealing with this issue, and this is what he usually advises them:

“To avoid burnout, it is important to set clear boundaries:

  • by saying no to some demands
  • delegate work that is less enjoyable
  • take time off
  • pursue other interests outside of work, preferably things that force the brain to work in a different way.

It may seem counterintuitive but in the long run, you will likely be more productive by taking care of yourself and working less.”

Overworking and your business

How does overworking impact your productivity?

There are many studies on the correlation between overworking and productivity.

For example, a Stanford study on the relationship between overworking and productivity reported that overwork leads to decreased productivity. As stated in this research, our productivity during the 60 hours workweek would be less than two-thirds compared to what our output was during the 40 hours workweek. In other words, our productivity is higher when we’re working our regular 40 hours workweek. Besides, our output will only decline during these extra hours at work.

Here’s an interesting fact: Mexico, South Korea, and Greece are among those countries that have the longest annual shifts. On the contrary, these countries have some of the lowest GDP in the world. In regards to developed countries, their current trend is to reduce the number of working hours per week, in order to enhance their average income.

How does overworking impact your business?

Have you ever asked yourself: will these extra working hours impact my productivity and the overall quality of work?

Let’s take a look at the research by the Business Roundtable in the 1980s. The focus of this study was the impact of scheduled overtime on construction projects. According to the results of this research, working 60 or 70 hours per week for a short time (for a few weeks) can be beneficial for you and your team. For example, this could happen when you’re about to approach a project deadline.

However, if you continue the 60 to 70-hours work schedule for longer than two months, the results will not be as positive as they used to be. Productivity will only continue to decrease. Here’s why: when you work more than 8 hours per shift, your output will be reduced, due to your fatigue. During your first extra hour (hour 9), you’ll start feeling exhausted and during 10 of 12 hours of work, your tiredness will reach its peak.

To summarize, working overtime for only a few weeks might be valuable for your business. But, be sure not to extend this overwork for a month or two.

Here’s another case of overworking – the one involving the space shuttle Challenger. This space mission was significant for two reasons:

  • It represented the first spacewalk of the space shuttle program
  • It was the first mission to carry two U.S. female astronauts.

Unfortunately, this space program ended as a disaster on January 28, 1986. Just 73 seconds after the liftoff, this shuttle exploded and its crew of seven astronauts lost their lives. The cause of the accident was “a failure in the joint between the two lower segments of the right Solid Rocket Motor”.

One part of the investigation of this tragedy was the “Human Factors Analysis’’. The goal of this research was to examine the safety consequences of work schedules before and during the launch of the Challenger. This study demonstrated that there is a frequent pattern at Kennedy Space Center for merging weeks of working 11-12 hours per day in sequence. Thus, this working model can cause workers’ fatigue and reduce their productivity, which can result in a risk to workers’ safety.

Still, the commission pointed out that “launch site activities, including assembly and preparation, were not a factor in the Challenger accident”. So, the fatigue factor wasn’t the cause of this accident. But, the fact that they dedicated a significant part of the investigation to “Human Factors Analysis’’ tells us a lot. Our overall productivity, often disrupted by overworking, plays an important part in getting successful work done.

We hope that the previously mentioned cases will make you reconsider working late. Be sure that you can easily avoid any of these issues by trying to stick to your regular working hours. After all, working extra hours truly impacts your productivity, so your output will only decline when working for more than 8 hours. Thus, the quality of your work will go down, too.

Don’t let overworking make you ill or get you fired. Instead, consider talking to your boss. If you’re struggling with the amount of work you have on a daily basis, let your boss know that, too.

How do you let your boss know you are overwhelmed?

Are you feeling overwhelmed? Is your manager giving you more work than you’re capable of? If so, you should tell your boss that you’re overtired. Before making this move, think about your strategy. Communication is crucial here. Be sure that you have every right to do this, just find the proper way to reach out to your manager.

These tips will help you plan your actions:

  1. Think about your role at the company

Your position at the company requires certain skills and a determined amount of work. Ask yourself the following:

  • Is the current workload acceptable for your role?
  • Is this a rare case when you’re supposed to work a bit harder because your role dictates you to?

If your answers are positive, you’ll need to stay strong and find your way to cope with overwork. In this case, you shouldn’t let your manager know you’re overwhelmed. Here’s why: by letting your boss know that this is too much for you, it would seem that you’re not qualified for this job.

  1. Try to be empathetic

Your managers have a lot on their plate, just like you. It’s essential you understand that. So, how do they deal with it? By making priorities. That’s why you have to point out that you share their priorities.

Be sure to state the following:

  • You know that a certain task is important and that you can prioritize it, but
  • you feel overwhelmed.

Once your manager realizes that you have mutual goals and that you’re dedicated to your work, they would be willing to help you.

  1. Share your list of priorities with them

The best way to show your boss that you’re exhausted is by making the list of all your current tasks. Let your managers know that you’re already dealing with a number of assignments. Maybe they simply forgot that you’re managing many tasks at the moment. That way, your boss will be more rational when delegating work.

  1. Propose a pragmatic solution

Now that your manager knows how much work you have at the moment, it’s time to start negotiating.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Figure out which tasks are the least critical on your list of priorities
  • Ask your boss to postpone the deadline for these tasks.

Your boss might have a different approach and might modify your list of preferences. But, that’s fine, as long as your managers agree on delaying some of your assignments.

Conclusion

The lack of energy, insomnia and a weak immune system are among the most common symptoms of overworking. Not only is overworking bad for your overall health, but it also has a negative impact on your business. Your productivity levels will only go down with each extra hour you spend at work. If you can’t deal with your workload, don’t hesitate to let your boss know. Just be sure to find the right way to express your issue.

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