There is mounting evidence that a vast majority of the American workforce are working longer hours, taking less vacation time and have difficulty disconnecting from work during off-hours. Overworking is a serious issue that affect many, regardless of age, profession or where you live and it seems this "always on" work ethic reaps little, if any, rewards. A 2014 study by John Pencavel of Stanford University discovered that working more than 50 hours per week actually makes you less productive.
President Barak Obama recently announced that new legislation is underway to make sure that American workers will be paid fairly for working longer hours by increasing the overtime salary threshold but there are other, more complex problems involved. This is a deep-seated cultural issue with multi-layered negative consequences. Work stressors -- including long work hours -- are linked to work-related sudden death, a rising number and rate of accidents, burnout, depression and a reduction of performance at optimum levels.
The latest media frenzy surrounding a Goldman Sachs intern who died of seizures induced from pulling all-nighters is an alarming illustration of the repercussions of overwork. Recently, Goldman Sachs has restricted interns from working between the hours of midnight and 7 am. The Japanese have had a name for this madness for more than 45 years. "Karoshi" is a term that, literally translated, means "death from overwork." Deaths attributed to karoshi are typically associated with underlying medical causes that are cardiovascular in origin, including cerebral hemorrhage, myocardial infarction, and heart failure. The term first emerged in 1969 when a 29-year old shipping worker died suddenly from a stroke after working long hours under high-stress conditions. Karoshi became widely recognized as a valid cause of death in Japan during the economic expansion of the 1980s. During the economic downturn of the 1990s, companies began demanding even longer hours, often under exceptionally stressful working conditions, increasing the number of sudden deaths from the previous decade. Even more disturbing is the increasing trend of Karojisatsu (suicide from overwork and stressful working conditions).
There are many aspects of this dilemma that affect workers worldwide, but the fact is that longer working hours are putting employees at all levels at risk. The challenges that we all face -- in business and our personal life -- are considerable. Chronic health problems can emerge due to stress, an ever-connected web-centric lifestyle, a shrinking workforce, operational change and globalization. The physical and psychological rigors of high workloads and constant fiscal pressure can lead to burnout, weight gain/loss, emotional strain, addictions or other unhealthy behaviors.
In our book Heart-Centered Leadership: Lead Well, Live Well we examine a number of ways that link effective leadership to enhanced health -- but these ideas are central to the wellbeing of all workers. It is about creating a sensible lifestyle, spending time with loved ones, developing emotional intelligence, and taking time out for reflection.
Consider the following five questions:
- What are you doing to create a healthy lifestyle?
- What are you doing in your workplace to support health promotion?
- What actions are you taking to live in a more heart-centered way?
- What is one thing that you can do differently to improve your health? What gets in the way of doing so consistently? How can you overcome this obstacle?
- What do you do to reduce stress?
Of course there are times when you have no choice but to keep your head down and push through. Here are some tips to help you better manage your workload:
1. Take a break every 90 minutes. There is scientific evidence that motivation and focus improves and productivity increases when work tasks are implemented in 90-minute intervals. Nathan Kleitman, a ground-breaking sleep researcher discovered that every 90 to 120 minutes the body goes through the ultradian rhythm cycle (similar to the circadian rhythms experienced during the sleep cycle). This is what causes periods of alertness and fatigue throughout the day. Each ultradian cycle starts off with alertness, but after roughly 90 minutes, alertness begins to diminish -- hunger or fatigue may set in, the mind wanders and you're more likely to make mistakes. If taking a break is not always possible, consider breaking for even five minutes, as the "break state" will increase productivity.
2. Feed your brain. Eat a protein-packed lunch to carry you through to the afternoon. Protein perks up neurotransmitters in the brain and boosts your energy. It will also help you think more clearly and stay focused. Make sure to keep healthy, easily accessible snacks on your desk such as mixed nuts or seeds, a protein bar, or an apple -- plus a big bottle of water.
3. Breathe deep or meditate. Close your eyes and take a few deep, slow breaths. Try it for 30 seconds for instant renewal. A regular meditation practice will also help you develop a greater sense of mental clarity, reduce stress, and an enhanced feeling of centeredness that can get you through a hectic work day. Get into the habit of putting aside even 5-10 minutes each day to meditate. Use an empty conference room, a quiet stairwell, or at your desk if it's possible to retreat behind a closed door for a few minutes.
4. Let go and delegate. We've heard this before but successful people know the importance of reviewing to-do lists and delegating where possible. One of the most difficult things for many people is to let go. The truth is, you don't have to do everything or be on every call and attend every meeting. Much of the stress we put upon ourselves to work long hours is self-imposed.
5. Learn to say "no". A vital part of authentic self-care is acknowledging when you need to say "no." It is not a selfish act when you do not have the time to do what is being asked of you -- and do it well. Just remember to turn down requests graciously.
6. Connect with nature. There are many scientific studies pointing to the healing powers of nature. Try to get out at least once a day to your local green space -- or somewhere you can breathe some fresh air. It will help renew your energy and relieve mental fatigue.
As Anais Nin once said, "We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are." Maybe it's time to take a step back and consider the possibility that there may be more to life than achieving recognition at work. Instead, find your own personal "place in the sun" by incorporating health and wellbeing into your life. Be aware of the larger, more "human" objectives in life -- including self-care and the wellbeing of others.
Remember, research shows that when we are at peak health levels we are also at peak levels of productivity. By building health and self-care into your schedule you may significantly safeguard your physical and mental health as well as the future success of your career.