Health Risks and Effects of Too Much Working Long Hours

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If you have a job in these challenging economic times, you are probably doing everything you can to hold onto it. If your employer asks you to put in 50 hours of work every week, you likely go further and put in 60 or more hours. You might think you’re getting more done by working long hours, but in fact, every hour you put in over 40 hours a week is making you less productive, both in the short and long term. Studies have found that the “sweet spot” for optimum productivity is 40 hours a week.

Reproductive Effects

There is increasing evidence to suggest that shifting work schedules, particularly night work, may present special risks to women of childbearing age. The causative factors include disruption of the menstrual cycle and increased stress from the conflicts created by night work on family life. Specific health outcomes linked to shifting work schedules include increased risk of spontaneous abortion, low birth weight, and prematurity. The evidence for subfertility is less convincing.

Increased Fatigue

Fatigue sets in when you work extended hours over a long period of time. Symptoms of fatigue from extended workdays include sleepiness, weariness, poor concentration, irritability and increased susceptibility to illness. These symptoms are a big hindrance to productivity. If you don’t stop and rest from work, fatigue will increase and become overwhelming.

Higher Safety Risks

When fatigue increases and you become overwhelmed from long workdays, your safety is at risk. Accidents and injuries are more likely to occur in the workplace. This safety hazard, while difficult to clearly support with scientific evidence because fatigue levels are not easy to measure and quantify, is a logical concern that you should not ignore.

Neglected Social Life

You will find it difficult to maintain a healthy social life when you work 60 or more hours a week. Free time to spend with family and close friends is not adequate with this work schedule. Extended work hours can also reduce the quality of your life by conflicting with quality time for family and time for other responsibilities and needs outside work. Stop working long hours and get a life outside of work.

More Stress

Odds are when you work long hours you are doing it at the expense of not only your family and close friends but also your diet, exercise routine, and sanity. The more you try to prove you’re a passionate and productive team player at work, the more you get forgotten by your kids, spouse and dog; and the more your mind registers stress.

Efficiency of Performance

Human error is often cited as an important factor in work accidents and this may depend to some extent on sleep-related factors and circadian rhythm. In general, an efficiency of performance seems to parallel the circadian variation in body temperature. The disruption of circadian rhythm, combined with sleep deficit and fatigue, can lead to work inefficiency, particularly in the early hours of the morning. This pattern of cause and effect has been reported for many groups of shift workers. A dip after lunch has also been described for the lowered efficiency of performance and this is only partially dependent on the meal itself.

The shortening of the sleep period caused by an early start at work has been shown to be associated with an increase in errors and accidents in transport workers.

Musculoskeletal Damage

Repetitive work when sustained in awkward postures increases the risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) that damage the body’s muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons, and nerves. Avoid extended work hours to give your body sufficient time to recover and repair itself each day, otherwise, your muscles might just buckle under work pressure.

Sleep

There’s general agreement in publications that the effects of long hours of work or shifting work schedules have a deleterious effect on sleep. Perhaps the most authoritative review concludes that despite considerable variation between people, sleep loss is a major effect of shift work. This is most noticeable after the night shift. The quantity of sleep may be reduced by up to two hours a day but there is also an effect on the quality of sleep. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and stage two sleep has been shown to be reduced. Such sleep deficits can lead to sleepiness at work, with some data showing that inadvertent napping at work can result. Overall, the effect of shifting work schedules was likened to a long-distance traveler working in San Francisco and returning to London for any rest days.

Mental Health

Shift working can be a potential psychosocial stressor. Stress is, however, a difficult concept to define, let alone measure. Many published reports on working hours cite stress as a problem but such reports all too commonly lack scientific rigor, acquiring these data from self- administered questionnaires and case reports.

Anxiety and depression indices also point to the likelihood of an adverse effect on mental health from shifting work schedules and long working hours. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that, by and large, shift workers are a self-selected population. Thus, the question of whether shifting work schedules cause psychiatric mortality or shift workers have pre-existent psychiatric problems isn’t entirely resolved. There seems to be increased neuroticism with increasing years of shift work, but neuroticism does not predict health-related shift problems.

Cardiovascular Disorders

The general consensus showed no firm evidence that cardiovascular disease was more prevalent in shift workers than other groups. Today, that opinion would have to be revised, although much of the new evidence comes from Scandinavian studies. A recent review of the data suggests that shift workers have a 40% increased risk for heart disease. Contributing factors include disruption of circadian rhythm, disturbed spatiotemporal patterns and social support, stress, smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise. The health outcomes are mainly angina pectoris, hypertension, and myocardial infarction.

The effect of overtime or long hours of work has been less extensively investigated. One mortality study from California showed increased rates of arteriosclerotic heart disease for male occupational groups in increasing proportions of the population who worked more than 48 hours a week. The 48-hour week cut off was an arbitrary one with information taken from censuses, and the study has not been replicated.

You are Putting Your Heart at Risk

Getting less sleep because you are working long hours, combined with the fact that many are sitting all day lead to an increasingly sedentary life. This puts you at an increased risk of heart diseases including:

  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Angina
  • Coronary heart disease (CHD)

While there are many factors that can lead to heart disease, several studies have found the correlation between heart disease and increased/longer work hours. One study looked at the results of 22,500 people and their working hours as well as the prevalence of coronary heart disease. It found that there’s an “approximately 40% excess risk of CHD in employees working long hours.” In other words, according to this study, people who work long hours are 40% more likely to develop CHD than those who work normal hours.

Conclusions in Working Long Hours

Results suggest that job schedules with long working hours are not riskier merely because they are concentrated in inherently hazardous industries or occupations, or because people working long hours spend a total time “at risk” for a work injury. Strategies to prevent work injuries should consider changes in scheduling practices, job redesign, and health protection programs for people working in jobs involving overtime and extended hours.

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