Can Too Much Work Increase Your Risk of Death? What to Know

Working long hours can impact your heart health. Maskot/Getty Images

A new report found that working over 55 hours is associated with an increased risk of death. But experts say that a certain number of hours worked doesn’t alway…

Working long hours can impact your heart health. Maskot/Getty Images
  • A new report found that working over 55 hours is associated with an increased risk of death.
  • But experts say that a certain number of hours worked doesn't always mean someone is overworked.
  • Instead, they say to look for signs that work is exhausting you and affecting your health.
  • If you're in a job that is negatively impacting your health, there are ways to improve your mental health even if you don't switch jobs.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that working too much can have negative effects on your health. But just how bad? 

Well, a recent report released by the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization says that overwork led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and heart disease in 2016. To make matters worse, that’s an increase of 29 percent since the year 2000.

So protecting yourself from overwork can quite literally be a matter of life and death. During the pandemic, going to work was made more dangerous by a lethal virus for many in-person essential workers. But even for the work-from-home set, this is a serious problem.

“Teleworking has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work. In addition, many businesses have been forced to scale back or shut down operations to save money, and people who are still on the payroll end up working longer hours,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, the WHO director-general, in a prepared statement.

That means the dangers of being overworked are real for most, if not all of us. It’s time to take a closer look at what overworking feels like, and how to protect yourself from its worst impacts.

How to tell if you’re being overworked

In their report, the WHO defined overworking as more than 55 hours a week. The study found that “working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35 [percent] higher risk of a stroke and a 17 [percent] higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week.”

You might look at that definition and immediately be able to tell that you are being overworked. But how do you spot the signs that it’s affecting your health?

“Being overworked doesn’t just affect us physically, it comes out in so many different ways,” said Marsha Brown, PhD, a licensed psychologist. Here are some of the symptoms she said you should watch out for:

  • Psychological: Feeling foggy-headed, having trouble solving problems, making careless mistakes, being short-tempered, or having a lower tolerance for work issues.
  • Physical: Feeling fatigued, experiencing headaches, feeling tense or like you can’t relax, feeling nauseous or sick to your stomach.
  • Emotional: Being anxious or worried all the time, having a sense of dread, fearing going to work, or feeling a sense of helplessness. 
  • Interpersonal: Avoiding co-workers who you used to have no issues with, getting into more conflict with people at work or loved ones at home, blowing up at little things.
  • Behavioral: Calling out sick more, making more mistakes, sleeping less, drinking more alcohol, or using more recreational drugs.

You might experience more of these symptoms depending on what type of work you do. Nurses in particular are seeing high levels of burnout and overwork in especially stressful conditions. A recent meta-analysis of nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic shows that 34 percent experienced emotional exhaustion. Two of the factors contributing to that issue were longer working time in quarantine areas and increased workload overall, according to the Journal of Advanced Nursing.

The WHO also points out that the effects of overwork are especially prominent for men. Indeed, 72 percent of deaths related to overwork in the WHO study occurred among males. 

How to protect your health (if you can’t quit your job)

Even if you know you’re being overworked, you may not have the ability to simply leave your job. But if that’s the case, there are still ways to safeguard your health.

Derek Richards, PhD, a research psychologist, psychotherapist and chief science officer at SilverCloud Health, said it’s important to deal with the stress or emotional exhaustion that can lead to bigger health problems.

You can start taking care of your mental health even during your work hours, Richards said.

“Take time to eat lunch, go for a walk, or even meditate as a method to unwind. These seemingly small steps will not only help you de-stress, they’ll also boost your productivity in the long term, ultimately helping you to feel more efficient as well,” Richards said in a written response.

Brown said it’s also crucial to set boundaries at work, to the extent that you can. Be clear about how much work you can take on, and say no to things when it becomes too much. If you have control over your schedule, be strategic about adding break time between appointments or meetings, even for five minutes.

“The point isn’t really the time, the point is to disconnect from work even for a little bit,” Brown said.

And beyond the small breaks, Brown suggests building in time during your commute or at the end of your day for reading, listening to music, or doing some physical activity — anything that releases stress that would otherwise build up and harm your health.

“That’s your time to just disconnect and think about something else and just take care of yourself,” Brown said.