American culture puts enormous pressure on people to push themselves hard, but there comes a point where you just can't take on more without compromising your well-being. The signs of being overworked aren't always glaring, so be on the lookout for these cues you need a change.

1. You're eating differently or have changed weight.

Physical and emotional stress raises the level of the hormone cortisol. One of cortisol's big jobs is energy regulation. It decides which substrate (carbohydrates, fat, or protein) is best for you and how much to use based on your current demands. It makes it easier for your body to store visceral fat and helps adipocytes develop into mature fat cells. Because it works against insulin, cortisol can make your cells crave more energy and send hunger signals to the brain. Lastly, it can stimulate appetite by affecting the balance of other hormones and binding to hypothalamus receptors. Subsequently, when you're overworked, you might find yourself grabbing that extra piece of pizza, or you might see the scale number going up despite healthy efforts.

In some cases, people who are overworked put meals and snacks on the back burner--only 20 percent of American workers actually leave their desks to take a real lunch break. Other times, feelings of anxiety leave them with symptoms like headaches or an upset stomach. Either case can cause you to decrease your calorie intake and drop pounds.

2. You're having trouble maintaining relationships.

The increased cortisol that results from being stressed can interfere with sleep patterns, causing insomnia. Many people who are overworked feel obligated to work more with technology, such as checking email on their phones. The blue light from screens also interferes with sleep patterns, inhibiting the production of melatonin, a chemical that signals your body to rest.

All this ties back to relationships in that insufficient rest makes it more difficult for you to regulate your emotions and even decipher emotions in others' facial expressions. Little irritations from your co-worker, for instance, might suddenly drive you bonkers. Or you might break down and cry the minute your partner gives you even slight criticism. You might not want to be around others, as well. All these issues can make arguments soar and interpersonal connections break.

3. Your space is a mess.

As responsibilities and tasks mount, logistical issues and fatigue make it more and more difficult to get everything done. You start prioritizing the big things, such as getting groceries or taking your car to the shop, and start caring less about little jobs, such as doing the dishes, taking out the recycling, or clearing away paperwork.

4. You keep getting a case of the sniffles.

As stress levels go up from having so much to do, increased levels of cortisol suppress the immune system. You might get sick more often or take longer to recover if you do.

5. You turn down good opportunities.

If you're already feeling like it's hard to keep your head above water, the prospect of a promotion or even dealing with new people at a party can seem like too much to handle. You might back off and procrastinate instead of forging forward, giving less than your best in a subconscious attempt to keep your current, familiar sense of identity and not have to shoulder anything else.

Breaking the cycle

Continuing to live an overworked, stress-filled lifestyle can be dangerous. To fight back,

  • Delegate some responsibilities.
  • Create documents to share amongst your team that clearly indicate goals and duties.
  • Talk to team members or experts to determine the time commitment associated with new tasks.
  • Share your calendar, so others don't assume you can take on new jobs; be firm in showing that additional work will have to wait, giving referrals if needed.
  • Politely request help or reassignments, offering evidence of what a more reasonable workload is.
  • Turn off or log out of all work-related technologies (e.g., phone and messenger services) when you clock out.

As you use these strategies, remember: even the best workhorse pulls only a fraction of its own weight for a full, eight-hour day. Doing more isn't necessarily doing your best, and you can't possibly give your best if you're physically and emotionally unwell. Take care of yourself and, when you have to, just say no.

Published on: Nov 8, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.