7 Ways to Stop Work from Destroying Your Health

Thursday Jul 16 | BY |
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Exhausted and sick businessman with problems. Too much work.

Studies show that work can be very bad for our health,
and can even increase risk of disease and death.

Most of us admire the hard-working individual.

But working too hard is bad for your health.

This is no longer up for debate. We know it to be true. We have the studies on how lack of sleep, stress, poor eating habits, lack of exercise, and more all take a toll on the body and mind, increasing risk of depression, heart attack, diabetes, and more.

One study even found that compared to those who worked 40 hours a week, those who worked 55 hours had lower scores in vocabulary, reasoning, and overall cognitive function. They added that the difference in cognitive functioning between employees working long hours and those working normal hours was similar in magnitude to that of smoking, which also affects cognitive functioning.

“We actually get stupider when we work too much,” executive coach Tasha Eurich, Ph.D. and author of Bankable Leadership, told Business Insider.

Still, we all have to earn a living. And most bosses aren’t overly thrilled about us taking time off, or shortening our days.

Fortunately, there are other ways we can manage our work days to keep them from intruding on our health.

1. Go to bed earlier.

Even if you’re a night owl, working late is bad for you. In fact, a recent Korean study found that night owls are more likely than early risers to develop diabetes, reduced muscle mass, and higher levels of fats in the blood.

Some of the problems caused by staying up late—sleep loss, poor sleep quality, and eating at inappropriate times. If you’re working on the computer, tablet, or smart phone, you’re more likely to have sleep problems, as the blue light in these devices affects melatonin production—the sleep hormone.

Studies have found that people who are exposed to too much light before sleep are more at risk for a number of health problems, including obesity, cancer, diabetes, depression, and more.

To protect your health, move your bedtime back by at least 30 minutes, and shut work and all gadgets down at least one hour before bed (preferably 2-3 hours).

2. Have a definite quitting time.

Employers love workers who put in the extra hours, but realize you’re sacrificing your health and possibly your longevity to do so. According to a 2014 study, work is the number-one sleep killer.

Researchers surveyed nearly 125,000 Americans and found that work was the main activity exchanged for sleep. People who slept six hours or less worked 1.55 more hours on weekdays and nearly two more hours on weekends and holidays than those who slept longer.

Short sleepers were also more likely to have more than one job and longer commutes. Meanwhile, we now know that chronic sleep deprivation is horrible for our health, leading to problems with blood sugar, weight gain, heart health, and more.

To be sure you get out of the office and get more sleep, set a definite quitting time and stick to it at least three days out of the workweek. Resist working on weekends. You may think it’s impossible to avoid it, but if you stick to your guns, you may be amazed at how you can get more done in less time when you go back to work on Monday.

3. Make appointments to spend time with friends and family.

If you have to meet your friend and/or loved one for lunch, dinner, or another event, you’re likely to do what you need to do to get out of work. This is a good thing—do it more often.

Otherwise, you’ll be likely to work too hard and you’ll sacrifice your mental health.

A 2014 survey found that heavy workloads, lack of support, and isolation (easy to feel when you’re at work all the time) were key factors contributing to mental illness. In fact, a culture of long working hours was felt by the participants to be directly related to a feeling of isolation and depression.

CNN reported that occupations with both high demand and low control over daily tasks cause stress, and that jobs with long hours or shift work can make it worse. Setting regular appointments with friends and family serves two purposes: it gets you away from work, and helps shore up relationships that support you, which can counteract the stress and depression that can result from long hours at work.

4. Ask about flexible hours.

Flexible work hours are better for your health.

A recent 2015 study found it to be true. Employees with more control over their work schedules were better able to get the sleep they needed. Researchers followed nearly 500 employees and found that those who could decide when and where to work (while still working the same number of hours as the control group) slept longer and better than those who had no control over their work hours.

In addition to improving their sleep, the employees with flexible work hours were also able to take part in more family activities—a bonus for health.

“Work can be a calling and inspirational,” said study author Orfeu M. Buxton, “as well as a paycheck, but work should not be detrimental to health. It is possible to mitigate some of the deleterious effects of work by reducing work-family conflict and improving sleep.”

A 2010 Cochrane research review looked at 10 studies and found that self-scheduling work time improved sleep, reduced blood pressure, improved mental health, and supporting overall well being.

Ask your employer if you can work in some flex-time. Offer to start small—maybe one day a week of working at home, for example—and set a time frame to review the results. Many companies have already started moving toward more flexible hours, especially as evidence mounts supporting the move for employee health and productivity.

5. Open a window.

The EPA says that indoor air pollution is worse than outdoor—sometimes 100 times worse. They also state that indoor pollutants are ranked among the top five environmental risks to health.

Poor air quality can affect the respiratory system, and may also lead to headaches, dry eyes, dizziness, and fatigue. Pollutants come from furnishings, building materials, insulation, cleaning products, carpet, heating and cooling systems, dust, air fresheners, and more.

If you have access to windows in your work area, try to open them frequently to increase ventilation. See if you can invest in an air purifier. Bring in more houseplants—they have shown in studies to help reduce the pollutants in the air. Clean your work area often, and avoid air fresheners. Use aromatherapy or natural beeswax candles instead.

6. Get up every 30 minutes.

Recent studies have discovered that all that sitting at the computer is horrible for our health. A 2009 study of 17,000 people, for example, found that sitting time was associated with all causes of death. People who spent 50 percent or more of their time each day sitting increased their risk of death from any cause from 11 to 54 percent—regardless of whether or not they exercised in their leisure time.

Other studies have shown similar results. In 2010, researchers from the American Cancer Society reported that women who sat more than six hours a day were 37 percent more likely to die during the study period than those who sat fewer than three hours a day.

The answer? Get up and walk around more often. Even one-to-two minute breaks help. Set an alarm if you need to for every thirty minutes. Get a drink of water or a cup of tea. (Use a small cup so you have to get up more often to refill it.) Walk around the building. Stand up to take phone calls. Set up walking meetings.

7. Make exercise a non-negotiable.

It’s amazing how quickly we’ll ditch our workout to spend more time at the workplace.

Doing so sets us up for future disaster.

Exercise is by far one of the best things we can do to protect our health. Studies have connected it not only with improved physical health, but better mental health, as well. It reduces risk of just about every disease, including heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. And it keeps the brain healthy—something you need to continue to be productive at work.

Working overtime, on the other hand, tears down heart and brain health. A 2010 study found that working 10 or more hours a day resulted in a 60 percent jump in risk of cardiovascular disease. The 2009 study listed above reported that long working hours negatively affected cognitive function.

So in a way, if you ditch your exercise routine to work longer, you’re cheating your employer out of a productive, healthy employee.

Exercise can help you better manage work stress, which contributes to overall better health in the long run. According to the American Psychological Association, exercise thwarts stress and anxiety by enhancing the body and brain’s ability to respond to stress. Other studies show that regular exercise improves cognitive function—a definite bonus for you and your employer.

Set up a time each day that you can exercise for at least 30 minutes, and stick to it. Missing your routine once or twice a month won’t hurt you, but if you find yourself compromising more than once a week on a regular basis, it’s time to make some changes in your schedule so you can be sure to get exercise in.

Do you have other ways to counteract work’s effect on your health? Please share them with our readers.

* * *

Marianna Virtanen, et al., “Long Working Hours and Cognitive Function: The Whitehall II Study,” American Journal of Epidemiology, 2009; 169(5):596-605, http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/169/5/596.full.

“Night Owls Face Greater Risk of Developing Diabetes than Early Risers,” Endocrine Sociaty, [Press Release], April 1, 2015, https://www.endocrine.org/news-room/current-press-releases/night-owls-face-greater-risk-of-developing-diabetes-than-early-risers.

Kathleen Doheny, “Work Steals Valuable Sleep time, Study Finds,” Consumer Healthday, December 16, 2014, http://consumer.healthday.com/mental-health-information-25/behavior-health-news-56/work-steals-valuable-sleep-time-study-finds-694678.html.

Claire Shaw, “Overworked and isolated—work pressure fuels mental illness in academia,” The Guardian, May 8, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/may/08/work-pressure-fuels-academic-mental-illness-guardian-study-health.

Tammy Worth, “Why your job is making you depressed,” CNN, 2011, http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/10/01/health.job.making.depressed/.

Joyce K, et al., “Flexible working conditions and their effects on employee health and wellbeing,” Cochrane Review, February 17, 2010; http://www.cochrane.org/CD008009/PUBHLTH_flexible-working-conditions-and-their-effects-on-employee-health-and-wellbeing.

Katzmarzyk PT, et al., “Sitting time and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer,” Med Sci Sports Exerc., May 2009; 41(5):998-1005, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19346988.

Patel AV, et al., “Leisure time spent sitting in relation to total mortality in a prospective cohort of U.S. adults,” Am J Epidemiol., August 15, 2010; 172(4):419-29, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20650954.

Gordon T. McInnes, “Overtime is bad for the heart,” European Heart Journal, May 11, 2010; doi: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehq116, http://eurheartj.oxfordjournals.org/content/31/14/1672.long.

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com

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