Can Long Hours of Work be Deadly?

In order to make money, we generally have to work. For us to make a lot of money, we generally have to be willing to work more hours. That’s a common view, and one I don’t necessarily disagree with. I’ve been known as someone who’s worked some super long hours at times, includes late nights in the office when need be.

That said, is there a point where too much work can be a bad thing?

It might be perceived as being bad to say, and almost lazy to proclaim. However, forging ahead with tons of hard work to bring in money may be harmful to people in the long term. This appears to be the conclusion of a recent study, which was summarized in this New York Times article.

The specific, noteworthy finding is that those people who work 11 or more hours per day were clearly more likely to develop heart disease over a 12 year period of time than those who work 7 or 8 hours per day. In fact, those working the excess hours were 66% more likely to have a heart attack or even die from one.

There’s something to be said for moderation. For many of us, it’s just not possible to get something for nothing. This applies in many aspect of life, and it looks like that might be the case in terms of working long hours, too. The chronic stressors related to taking on that significant level of work might lead to health problems. For some people, it’s like robbing from Peter to pay Paul.

I know that many people might dismiss this notion of regular 11 hour workdays being unhealthy. Well, hey – that’s what the study does seem to indicate though!

As I said earlier, I’ve had many instances in the past where I worked long hours. I mean, I’m talking stretches of 70 to 80 hours per week. I felt like a warrior doing so, going out to battle and bringing home the prize of a great performance review and a chance at a promotion. The reality is that this is bad for one’s health makes me wonder what I did to myself during those times.  Of course, I have to say that it’s not entirely surprising that this isn’t good for us. It’s just not as sustainable the older you get. Not just in terms of energy level, but family responsibilities as well.

A recent post on Financial Samurai discussed the topic of hard work and the 40-hour workweek. It was a great discussion, and one of my own comments was that nobody is entitled to be be rich. It has to be earned, and expecting riches while not putting in the necessary work is a sign of entitlement.  Many people who complain about having to work a 40 hours week (when younger and healthy) and then complain about not getting ahead financially might be expecting to get something for nothing. Or, perhaps more accurately, they’re expecting to get something of value by not giving enough value in return.

Which is what I said a few paragraphs above about working tons of hours. To do that, and expect the same level of health and family life, may not be totally realistic. Kids do need parents to be present and attentive.

My takeaways are:

  1. Life is clearly about choices. If you don’t want to work, don’t expect wealth. Of course, if you want to push your mind and body by working long hours to get even more wealth, you might be trading some health for it. Sleep is important for wealth creation, as we’ve discussed here before.
  2. Maybe it’s all really about time management. Instead of regular 60 hour weeks, perhaps it’s better to learn to be efficient with regular 45 hours of work.
  3. If one is doing what he or she truly, absolutely loves to do and has some flexibility in where and when work can be done, maybe the work will cause less stress. Thus, the impact might not be the same as with other jobs. Who knows, maybe there’s something to that?

Please share: what do you think?

 

Comments

  1. says

    First, I do think that many could learn to be more productive and get as much done in less time. That would be a good start. I also wonder if there is a causal relationship between long hours at work or the work that is done. If most people are sitting at a desk, that is a problem. There are also studies which show that those standing during work are more physically fit and less likely to have heart disease, etc. So is it work or more lack of activity (ie standing)?

    • Squirrelers says

      Productivity was one of my takeaways, so I can see where you’re going with your comment. Also, good point on lack of activity playing a role too. I think they were taking about other stressors, but being sedentary wouldn’t seem to help!

  2. says

    well there is that saying that goes something like ‘when you find the thing you love doing you’ll never work another day in your life’

    I like cashflowmantra’s comments above me, productivity is an important aspect to include int he considerations…

  3. says

    Extremes of any kind is not good for you! When I work long hours, I try to break it up. For example, I do not mind returning to a project after dinner, but I won’t work through dinner. The key is work/life balance.

    • Squirrelers says

      krantcents – work/life balance is key, and becomes much more essential as one’s familiy responsibilities increase.

  4. says

    I’m a bit of a work-a-holic myself, but I work hard and play hard. I know I’d be going to an early grave if I didn’t relieve some stress after work, so after a long day I usually try to get some serious exercise in (like mountain biking or some basketball).

    But my plan is to really bust my butt for a few years so that I can slow down considerably and be able to afford a much better work/life balance in my 40′s and 50′s. I’m on track to do it, but it can be a tough road.

    • Squirrelers says

      Geoff – While I think balance is key, I do like your approach toward putting in the tough work now so you can relax later. Delayed gratification in that way is a really good thing.

  5. says

    Actually, I read that people who work less than 11 hours a day are more susceptible to heart attacks and other diseases because they aren’t exercising their minds or bodies and keeping active. Funny huh?

    In other words, we’re all programmed differently, and should do what we feel is right.

    I feel lucky to have found a job that I enjoy. There is also a lot of client outings involved which are simply fun i.e. baseball games, golf, lunches, etc. Whatever job you’re in, it’s about relationships at the end of the day.

    • Squirrelers says

      Sam – yes, I totally agree with you that we’re all programmed differently and should do what we individually feel is right. Some people have the capacity to work 70 hour weeks, others would have a nervous breakdown doing that for just a few weeks. We’re all different! You are lucky to have a job you enjoy, that’s great. Seems as if that might change the equation a bit.

  6. says

    Some jobs are definitely more stressful than others. It’s important to do what you love, if possible (better on your health as it doesn’t feel as much like work as doing things you dislike). And yes, working hard is important but so is family. Nice post :)

  7. says

    I was in a ridiculous training program about a year out of college and I had to literally work about 100 hours a week. I got one day off that entire time, and I hated it. During that time, I got bronchitis and also an eye infection. (Because I was stupid and wore contacts most of the time instead of giving my poor eyes a break.)

    I have often found that during times of high stress, I get sick right after the event is over. I was sick on my honeymoon, sick after we moved, sick after my dad died, sick after giving birth, you name it. I know how my body reacts to stress and lack of sleep, and I know I can’t be a warrior. I have to respect what my body tells me and not think I am weak for not being able to do more.

    Very interesting post Squirrel!

    • Squirrelers says

      Everyday Tips,

      100 hours per week is insanity. if working 6 days, you’re talking about 16 hours and 40 minutes per day. Ludicrous.

      I totally know what you mean about sickness after times of high stress. When younger, I was immune to this, as the warrior in me was able to push forward. Today, however, I simply can’t do that anymore, as I’m not in the really good, fit shape I was in then. Plus, things change naturally anyway in terms of energy as we start to get older. Just as recently as the last year or two I had a couple of days of being in the office until 2AM – and found that I just can’t bounce back instantly like I could when in my 20′s. Not close:)

  8. says

    If you regularly find yourself working long hours, change the way you work or change your job! Obviously something isn’t right.

    Working long hours doesn’t necessarily mean you are working ‘effectively’. And I despise companies that expect you to put in long hours. Neither good for you nor the company.

  9. says

    I worked long hours once or twice a year also. When I was in my 20s, this is not a big deal at all. We get free pizza, junk food, and soda and just power through the 80-90 hours work week. Now that I’m a bit older, I can’t really do that anymore. I’d rather eat healthy food and work moderately.

    • Squirrelers says

      retirebyforty – me too, I could power through the long weeks of 80+hrs more easily when younger. I’m still able to work hard, though not the pure hours of 15hrs/day like years ago. I think efficiency is key now.

        • Squirrelers says

          That is insane. That leaves 40 hours per week, or less than 6 hours per day, for commuting, eating, sleeping, family, etc. I wonder exactly why these people thought it was a good idea to do this.

  10. says

    Balance is the key. And also it depends on how much a person loves the job. My husband will go mad if I ask him to stop working in 8 hrs. I personally don’t like that. Now the problem is his employer knows that he works longer hrs and that has become the “norm”. The next person, if he works for 9 hrs everyone thinks he worked longer. If my husband cuts his 12 hrs into 11, they are not impressed. From the next job, we are going to establish 8-9 hrs max as the normal. Don’t know how he will manage :) but that is what we will do.

    • Squirrelers says

      Suba – yes, the idea of how much a person really loves the job plays a big role in it. In that case, there can sometimes be an addicting quality to work. For most, it’s really about balance and what works best for each of us in terms of goals, family, and health. Great points on how going excessively beyond expectations can change the expecations of what’s normal.

  11. says

    I think it depends — how stressed out are you, how much rest are you getting, and when are you taking breaks?

    I think we can conceivably work 12 hours a day — after all, you come home, you work at making food and cleaning up a bit, and then there’s transit time — this is a good time to catch up on some reading.

    It’s also important to relax, and i see nothing wrong with taking a 30 min break on the bed when coming home to recharge. All in all I think it matters how much control you have over your stress and if you’re allowing your body to recuperate. I don’t know, what do you think? If a person hates their job maybe 8 hours is far too long. If you love it even 12 hours might be not enough so long as you take the necessary breaks, since we are not immortal!

    • Squirrelers says

      You make good points about how one works when getting home anyway. Especially when children are in the picture, then the amount of work at home increases astronomically. I think that’s why it’s often a challenge for people to work a ton of hours as they get older – you just don’t have the time to get it all done. Making money is critical, but being there for children is vital too. A happy medium is then found, otherwise we could conceivably be working 18 hours a day!

      I agree that it matters how much control we have on our stress and if we’re letting our body (and mind, actually) rest. Nutrition matters too.

  12. says

    I think the long hours become a problem as you usually lose sleep that way. If you don’t get enough sleep it takes a toll on your body. Your immune system becomes more vulnerable. You don’t think as clearly and efficiently, not to mention creatively. You can eaisily feel like you are sleepwalking through life and become depressed. I know there are times when it’s necessary, but it’s best for most people to make that a temporary situation. If nothing else, try to find a different job with better hours.

  13. says

    I kept an insane schedule during college and probably the first 10 years of my career. My body did and does react when I try to put too much stress on it and I get sick and it refuses to get better for weeks.

    Like going out drinking and having a big bender that you pay for days later, I notice that my body doesn’t recover from high stress/long work hours like it used to. I can still tax my body somewhat if I flip flop between physical work and mental work, but I can’t do too much of one thing for too long without physical consequences.

    Luckily, after 15 years in the workforce, I have a lot of knowledge that can make up for the lack of extra hours. Earlier on, much of the extra work was really just learning the ropes and getting good at stuff.

    I’m not at all surprised by this data based on how my own body reacts to stress.

    • Squirrelers says

      Actions have consequences. From my experience, this becomes more amplified as we get older, in terms of insane work hours and it’s toll on the mind and body. The data resonated with me, too.

  14. says

    Time management — your second point — is incredibly important and totally underappreciated. You can achieve more in 20 focused hours than you can in 40 unfocused hours. And remember, work “expands” to fill the time you allot it. If you limit your working hours, you force yourself to be more efficient.

    • Squirrelers says

      Paula – very true, work does have a tendency to expand to fill the avaiable time. When I put deadlines on myself for smaller tasks, I get them done quicker than I would have otherwise done.

  15. JA says

    All good points. I’m just recovering from working over 100 hours a week for about a year. I’m in 100% commission outside B2C sales and have to estimate and manage all the jobs I sell for not the best return. It’s a numbers game and I willingly signed up for it about 6 years ago. About 40-50 hours a week are spent trying to generate leads for the following week. It’s like being a general contractor on a Kerby vacuum sales compensation plan. Anyway, it’s a pressure cooker. I used to work 40-60 hours a week doing industrial sales/project management and had a salary and far less stress. To make an incredibly dull, long story short, I sacrificed my health for my job and wound up with extremely high blood pressure and recently a trip to the ER via ambulance with a stay at the hospital (chest and jaw pain). This was with proactively keeping my personal life relatively free of stress and eating as healthy as possible. Unless you’re running your own business or working in a lucrative finance/investment position it’s just not worth it. Once you find the work-life balance that works for you, do everything you can to protect it. Be well.

    • Squirrelers says

      100 hours of work per week for a year? That seems unsustainable just by doing the math. Glad that you’re not doing that anymore!

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