How Much Work Is Too Much For Your Mental And Physical Health?

Full time workers in the U.S. will typically clock up 47 hours per week of work — and that only includes paid work. Meanwhile, Aussies at the Australian National University have found that the maximum number of hours worked before mental health starts to suffer is 39.

The scientists studied 3,838 men and 4,062 women. They found that while 39 is the ideal maximum, wages and non-paid work like housekeeping also need to be taken into account. Considering that women tend to do more domestic and caring labor, the Australians suggested that 34 hours was actually a better limit for women. Forty-seven hours is better for men.

Without work-life balance, your health will suffer

For those with no care responsibilities, 48 hours was a good maximum amount of paid work, before mental health would be affected. Mental Health UK comes close to agreeing on the maximum number of work hours before you’re emotionally affected — putting them at 49 per week. The organization argues that without a good work-life balance, your resilience to mental health problems is affected.

And when working long hours, Mental Health UK found that a quarter of employees feel depressed, a third feel anxious and more than half feel irritable (58 percent). Other consequences of overworking include physical health problems, poor relationships, poor home life and spending more time worrying about work (even when not working).

Too much work is linked to diseases

Too much work is linked to all sorts of health issues, like diabetes.
Too much work is linked to all sorts of health issues, like diabetes.

Physical health wise, journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that job strain (high job demands and low job control) can increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 45 percent.

Health coach Dillan DiGiovanni also said that overworking can lead to high blood pressure and insomnia, which then lead to other illnesses. Other work-related health problems depend on the kind of work. Joint inflammation, for example, is a common one for those who stand-up a lot on the job or do hard manual labor.

In terms of hours-per-day, PloS ONE research found that those who work 11 hours or more per day have over double the risk of major depressive episodes, compared to those working seven or eight-hour days.

But all the experts and studies largely agree: the big problem with overworking is the relaxation, home-cooked meals, sleep and time with friends that is neglected. And the big victim of this, beyond mental and physical health, is the quality of work one is doing in the first place.

Signs you’re working too much

If you’re neglecting other aspects of your life because of work, and you have some of these signs, there may be a problem: 

  • The quality of the work you produce is decreasing, or generally low.
  • You’re not having fun, you’re not excited to get up and you don’t go to work full of energy and drive.
  • Things are out of focus, you’re struggling to concentrate and your interest levels are low.
  • You’re having difficulty sleeping. Here, really make sure to stop working a good few hours before you go to bed, otherwise it will be on your mind when you try to get to sleep.
  • You’re procrastinating and feeling apathetic towards the work. Businessperson Nathan Lustig says that he knows he’s getting burned out when he spends too much time on Facebook, Twitter and news sites.
  • You’re irritable and lashing out.

What you can do if you’re working too much

If you're working too much, you need to make some changes for the sake of your health.
If you’re working too much, you need to make some changes for the sake of your health.

Overcoming a too-big workload involves a fair bit of assertiveness. It means speaking-up when expectations at work are too high and taking full half-hours (at least) for lunch.

A great technique recommended by Mental Health UK is to “work smart, not long.” This involves tight prioritization (set limits on time per tasks) and not getting caught up in less productive activities, like unstructured meetings that go on for ever.

Draw a bold line between work and leisure. If you do have to bring work home, set a certain area of your home for work. Put a door, shelf or other barrier around it.

And in terms of preventing mental health problems, track your cumulative work amounts, not just your daily hours. The effects of too much work build up over weeks and months. When you track this, include time spent worrying about work, as this counts towards work-related stress.

Finally, remember that taking time out actually helps us work better and more efficiently. Depending on the kind of work you do, it’s likely that if you’re struggling to finish something at work, you push on. But after a certain amount of this behavior, we are unable to focus effectively. The best thing to do is take a step away, recharge, go for a walk and do nothing. You’ll come back more focused and you’ll get that task done quicker than if you’d never stepped away.

— Tamara Pearson

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