What working a 55-hour week does to your body
Are you working from home, or living at work? This was one of the questions raised by many of us as we found ourselves battling longer hours and higher workloads during the shift to working from home in the past year. But just how damaging are long working hours for our health? According to the first global study of its kind, an astonishing 745,000 people died in 2016 from stroke and heart disease due to long working hours. The research, conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation, found that working 55 hours or more a week (which translates to an 11-hour day) was associated with a 35 per cent higher risk of stroke and a 17 per cent higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared with a working week of 35 to 40 hours. The study also found almost three quarters of those that died as a result of working long hours were middle-aged or older men. The research was carried out in South East Asia and the Western Pacific, but the findings shed a light on a growing problem happening worldwide. A recent study found that the average working day in the UK has lengthened by two hours because of Covid, prompting fears that toiling into the night is rapidly becoming our new normal. Just this month, Jonathan Frostick, a manager for HSBC, blamed work stress for his heart attack. Like many others, he had found his work and home life begin to blur during the pandemic, and vowed in a LinkedIn post, which quickly went viral, to create a better life-work balance in the future. Yet despite this, the culture of overworking continues. This March, an internal survey among disgruntled first year bankers at the investment bank Goldman Sachs found they averaged 95 hours of work a week. The 13 workers presented their findings, entitled Working Conditions Survey, to management, comparing their hours to workplace abuse. In the report, one of the bankers wrote, ‘There was a point where I was not eating, showering or doing anything else other than working from morning until after midnight.’ Another wrote, ‘My body physically hurts all the time and mentally I’m in a really dark place.’ In response, Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon said that while it was ‘great’ they raised concerns with their management, going the “extra mile” can make a big difference. “Just remember,” he said in an address to the bank’s 34,000 staff worldwide, “if we all go an extra mile for our client, even when we feel that we’re reaching our limit, it can really make a difference in our performance.” In Japan, death from overwork is so common they even have a word for it: karoshi and suicide due to overwork is called karojisatsu. Even prior to the pandemic, studies found that Britons were working longer hours than our European counterparts. In 2019, data from the European statistics agency Eurostat found that full-time workers in the UK put in an average of 42.5 hours a week, putting them above the European average of 41.2. This was also the year that the WHO chose to recognise burnout as a medical condition, defining it as: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.” Either way, long hours take their toll on the body. Research undertaken on civil servants in 2010 found those who worked three or more hours longer than a standard seven-hour day had a 60 per cent higher risk of heart-related problems such as death due to heart disease, non-fatal heart attacks and angina, compared with colleagues who did not work overtime. Meanwhile, studies undertaken by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health have found that overwork, and the resulting stress, can lead to impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, poor memory and heart disease. Cary Cooper, a professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at the University of Manchester, says that extreme stress is the driving factor in causing health problems caused by overwork. He explains that exposure to high amounts of stress inhibits our T Cells – the part of the immune system that focuses on specific foreign particles. As a result, our bodies are less able to fight off illnesses and disease. Stress triggers the release of cortisol, he explains. In small amounts, cortisol boosts our immunity by limiting inflammation. But the tipping point comes when too much cortisol enters our blood, leading to more inflammation in the body. Stress also reduces the number of lymphocytes in the body, the white blood cells that help fight off infection. The lower your lymphocyte level, the more at risk you are for viruses. Repeated exposure to stress can also indirectly affect the immune system, causing us to turn to unhealthy habits, such as drinking and smoking, to manage our stress. High levels of stress can also clog the arteries in our hearts. “If you experience a lot of chronic stress, the biochemistry can damage your coronary artery walls,” says Cooper. “Fibrinogen is released to try to repair the damage in your coronary arteries, and that is how they narrow, which could lead to a heart attack,” he says. The WHO study found that middle-aged men were most at risk of overworking, which Cooper says is nothing new. A 2006 study found men were suffering high rates of stress and depression due to overwork, with many turning to drink as a coping strategy. Cooper says men’s coping strategies tend to be more repressed than women’s. “Men bury their emotions more, and don’t admit when they’re not coping as much as women do,” he says. “A man’s role is also largely defined by work, so stress will impact him more. Women tend to have other things in their life, such as children and family.” In recent years, much research has been undertaken to explore whether the 40-hour working week is outdated. Last year, a survey undertaken by the publication All Work found that the ideal working week is 29 hours. Others think the answer to a better/work life balance could lie in the introduction of a four-day working week. When Microsoft Japan tested a four-day week, productivity increased by about 40 per cent. However, Cooper predicts levels of overwork are simply going to increase following the pandemic, once furlough is taken away. “The job insecurity we’re going to see will increase people’s stress levels, leading them to up their working hours to show commitment to their employer,” he says. “If more people are let go [from companies], the remaining people will work longer hours, because there are fewer of them.” Which, it seems, will be bad news for our health. Have you ever had to work long hours? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below.