#119 How to Prevent the Health Effects of Overworking

August 20th, 2015 by

How to Prevent the Health Effects of Overworking

“Am I going to have a heart attack or stroke?” John asked me at his clinic visit yesterday.

“Based on the medical study that just came out, it does look like your risk is increased,” I responded.

“Yeah, it’s in the newspapers and on TV and it’s got me worried.  I certainly don’t want to die from too much work,” John said with fear in his voice.

Deep down, it has me worried as well.  As a recovering workaholic this recent study was a reminder to me that none of us are superhuman.

In this article I will share the health risks of overworking and will give you specific strategies on how to prevent the health effects of overworking.  If you would rather get the “Reader’s Digest” version of this blog article, here is the link to a 2-minute TV segment I did on this blog article.

Heart Attack Risk from Too Much Work

The study that has the world talking right now was published this week in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet.  Fully 603,838 people from the U.S., Europe, and Australia were included in this study.

After following all of these people for an average of 8.5 years, researchers concluded that the risk of a heart attack was increased by 13% in those people who work more than 55 hours a week.  While this risk may sound quite frightening, this number is much smaller than previous studies which indicated an increased heart attack risk of up to 80% in people working more than 40 hours per week.

Stroke Risk from Overworking

While the risk of a heart attack was only modestly elevated in this study, the risk of a stroke from overworking was very impressive.  Indeed, this study showed that in people working more than 55 hours a week, the stroke risk was increased by 33%. Even those who work just a little more than 40 hours a week were at increased risk of a stroke.  Is excessive work really worth the cost of potentially spending the rest of your life in a nursing home?

How Do Long Working Hours Cause Heart Attacks and Strokes?

Just why do people who put in long hours at the office, or work multiple jobs, have more heart attacks and strokes?  Deep down, I think we all know the inherent risks of overworking from our own experiences.

However, for the skeptics out there, let me share possible reasons for this increased risk based on the best medical data available.

1. Long Working Hours Increase Our Perceived Stress

I have come to learn that when I have put in long hours at the hospital I tend to feel more “stress.”  Studies show that this stress alone may increase our risk of a heart attack or stroke by up to 40%.

2. Excessive Work Raises Our Blood Pressure

Whether it is job stress related, or just due to the fact that we don’t have enough time to live a healthy lifestyle, excessive work raises our blood pressure.  Regardless, your risk of high blood pressure is at least twice as high if you work long hours.

3. Overworking Causes Overeating and Under Exercising

It comes as no surprise that the more hours we log in at work the more food we eat, especially the donuts and other treats our coworkers bring in, and the less time we will have to exercise.  Indeed, medical studies verify that people who work long hours tend not to have a clean diet and are more likely not to exercise.

4. Workaholics Are More Likely To Become Diabetic

As a direct result of poor food choices at work, as well as being stuck in a chair, workaholics are much more likely to become diabetic.  Diabetes is one of the strongest risk factors not only for heart attacks and strokes but also dementia as well.

5. Long Working Hours Cause Depression

While some people thrive on long working hours, for the rest of us, we tend not to be as happy when work dominates our lives.  Is it any wonder then that studies have shown that the more hours you put in at work the higher your chances are of depression?  Depression, in turn, is a powerful risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Can You Die from Overworking?

It should come as no surprise that overworking can cause an early death.  Indeed, the Japanese even have a word for this, karoshi.  Probably due to the long working hours in Japan, the Japanese have long recognized that even young executives can kill themselves from working too many hours.  Are you at risk of a karoshi-death?

How to Prevent the Health Effects of Overworking

What should you do if you routinely put in more than 40 hours per week?  With “always on” smartphones, more and more of us never seem to get away from work.  What can we do to prevent a karoshi early death (death from overworking)?

1. Look at the Big Picture

Perhaps the most important thing is to evaluate your priorities and what your goals are in life.  Are you running yourself ragged, and destroying your health, just so that you can live in that bigger house, go on those nice vacations, and drive that fancier car?  Perhaps the real solution is to simplify and start enjoying your life now.

2. Love Your Work

In my experience as a cardiologist, most of my patients who develop cardiovascular disease from overworking do so because they do not enjoy working.  For these patients, work is something they dread.  They live for the weekend and dread Monday mornings.  Is it any wonder then that the highest risk of a heart attack is on Monday morning when people are just preparing to go to work?

The number one way to avoid the risks of overworking is to find a job or calling in life that doesn’t require “work.”  Try to find a way to get paid for playing or doing something that you love so much you would do it for free.  As has often been said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

3. Manage or Prevent Perceived Stress

Of all the risks of overworking, perceived stress seems to be the strongest risk factor for heart attacks and strokes.  If you must work long hours, find a way to minimize or eliminate unnecessary perceived stress.

For example, if you are in a stressful work environment, perhaps it is time to change jobs.  If you love where you are at, but it causes you too much stress, perhaps meditation, yoga, or daily exercise might help you to unwind each day.

4. Use All Your Vacation Time

Working long hours and not using all of your vacation time is a double hit.  Surprisingly, 41% of Americans don’t use all of their vacation time.  I used to be one of these people. At least if you are going to work hard then you should play hard as well.  Even if you are not working long hours never let a vacation day go unused.

5. Get At Least 7 Hours of Sleep

To work more than 40 hours a week, most people steal time from sleep.  I know this was one way I used to find extra hours in a day.

In previous articles, I have discussed the heart attack, dementia, and cancer risks associated with sleep deprivation.  To safely work long hours you must make sleep a major priority in your life.

6. Eat the Right Foods at the Right Time

Too often, those who are burning the candle at both ends, tend to eat junk at work and then have a big meal when they come home late at night.  If you want optimal performance at work, eat a healthy breakfast before you leave in the morning and be sure to pack a healthy lunch and snacks, if needed, throughout the day.  Dinners, ideally, should be light and relatively early with nothing to eat right before bed.

Commit now not to eat the sugar your coworkers will inevitably bring in.  Also, the packed healthy lunch you prepare each day will help you to resist fast food, or other garbage, for lunch.  Just like you would never knowingly put bad gas in your car, you should never put bad food in your body and expect optimal work performance.

7. Find Time To Move

To safely navigate working long hours you must also find time to move throughout the day.  Getting a workout in each day can’t protect you from the dangers of an office job.

For example, one study showed that even if you exercise every day, you are 47% more likely to die young if you sit for more than 7 hours a day.  Considering that the average American sits 9.3 hours a day, this is probably you.  If you work in an office, even if just part-time, consider a treadmill desk, bike desk, standing desk, or even just getting up every 30 minutes to prevent the health risks of sitting.

Take Home Message

The big picture is that this study confirms the findings of many previous studies.  Specifically, working long hours significantly increases your risk of a heart attack or stroke.

The key to eliminating this risk is to either simplify your financial needs or find something that does not “feel like work.”  If work is play then, in my experience,  you can avoid the cardiovascular risks of working long hours.

If you feel compelled to work long hours, or have no other choice, you must take special care of your body.  Just like you would never neglect taking care of your car on a long road trip, the same must be true for your body.  If you are going to work it hard, you must prevent or manage perceived stress, get restorative sleep, eat the right foods at the right times, and ensure that you are moving through the day.  And, of course, please at least promise me that you will use all of your vacation days.

Do you work long hours?  What have you found that helps you to maintain excellent health despite long working hours?