Overworking has become the norm for many professionals. While being constantly plugged in can make us feel safe, connected, and in the know — both at work and at home — it also means we never really clock out.
We reply to emails after work hours, take work calls at home, and even take a few hours out of our weekend for some work. The rise of remote work has even further blurred the lines between the end of the work day and time on the clock.
Studies consistently show that chronic overwork can damage your health, hurt your career, and lead to early burnout. Read on to learn exactly what happens and why.
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Why Overworking is Bad For Your Health
Overworking has serious consequences for our health.
“While a person’s body and brain have an unbelievable capacity to be resilient and adaptable, they have their limits and need to be taken care of in order to be able to function well,” said Dr. Adam Pelman, director of integrative health and well-being at Mayo Clinic Florida, in an interview with Medical News Today.
“When we overwork and fail to prioritize self-care, we don’t give the body or the brain what it needs to rest and recuperate,” Pelman says.
Our body and mind can only take so much stress. Here are just a few ways overwork can impact you and your health.
1. Overwork causes stress.
Many different factors add to the stress.
A study investigating the primary causes of stress for Americans in 2023 concluded that workload was the key contributor to stress, affecting 39% of workers, followed by interpersonal issues (31%), juggling work and personal life (19%), and job security (6%).
Constant stress can catalyze various health issues ranging from obesity and anxiety to health conditions like depression, heart disease, and mental disorders.
2. Stress prevents sleep.
When you work long hours, you skip sleep.
Not taking the recommended 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep or sleep deprivation causes a disruption of the circadian rhythm.
Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that are dependent on our 24-hour cycle. When these patterns are disturbed, they leave you with low energy until you get a proper eight hours of sleep.
Hormonal imbalance and metabolic disturbances are common side effects of sleep deprivation and disorders. These exhibit themselves through high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
Think you‘re one of those “lucky people” who can get by fine with only five or six hours of sleep? You probably aren’t.
While researchers have found genes in people that enable them to be well-rested after less than eight hours of sleep, they also say the incidence of either is incredibly rare.
3. Stress gets in the way of healthy eating habits.
Too tired to cook or go to the gym? That’s typical for the days you overwork, as it gets in the way of your daily exercise, healthy eating, and other good habits.
When you’re overworked and tired, you tend to make unhealthy food choices. Working out seems like a chore, and you rely on caffeine to get you through the day.
Cleveland Clinic reports that stress due to overwork leads to over-eating or making poor diet choices. How? Stress triggers the release of cortisol, also known as the stress hormone.
Cortisol prompts cravings for sugary, salty, and fatty foods as your brain seeks fuel to cope with whatever threat is causing stress.
4. Stress is bad for your heart.
Your heart is one of the first things that gets affected by stress and overwork.
A WHO survey concluded that people working 55 or more hours per week face a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease compared to those working 35-40 hours per week.
Also, reports from WebMD feature accounts of people who developed heart conditions as a result of overworking.
Examples of heart-related problems included death due to heart disease, non-fatal heart attacks, and angina, a condition caused by low blood supply to the heart.
Wondering why overwork causes heart disease?
Clinical social worker Iris Waichler, while talking to Medical News Today, explains that stress from overworking can increase the production of the hormone cortisol, elevating the risk of heart attack or strokes.
It can also cause other problems like backache, neck ache, and tightening of muscles, she added.
5. Stress affects your concentration and impairs your judgment.
Overworked, stressed, and sleep-deprived people often have impaired judgment and foggy memory.
You may have noticed developing a short temper after a stressful couple of days.
Intense emotional responses, snapping at your partner, or getting easily frustrated with coworkers are all signs that you’re exhausted.
This happens as overwork causes a lack of sleep, which affects the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory creation and consolidation.
This makes you lose concentration and compromises your judgment.
6. Overworking may lead to bad habits.
Aside from health risks, overworking links to habits that are unhealthy and detrimental.
In 2015, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health studied the correlation between work patterns and alcohol consumption.
They found that when people worked more than 48 hours per week, they were more likely to engage in “increased risky alcohol use.”
Aside from alcohol consumption, researchers also found that long hours were linked to smoking.
A 2018 paper from Welltory added to the list of bad habits, showing that overworking can also lead to more social media consumption, which can endanger your level of stress recovery when you’re not working.
7. Overwork causes depression.
In addition to physical exhaustion, excessive workload, long hours, and unsociable shifts can significantly impact your mental health.
“Long hours and the burden of overwork can have serious consequences like clinical depression and even suicidal behavior in employees,” states WHO in the “World Mental Health Report: Transforming mental health for all.”
8. “Karoshi” or overwork death has been documented.
Karoshi is a Japanese term that translates to “overwork death” or “death from overwork.”
It refers to a phenomenon where individuals develop serious diseases and mental disorders because of working excessively for long hours, facing constant intense stress and pressures.
A study investigating the causes of Karoshi and preventive measures to avoid it revealed that it led to heart and brain diseases in people in their 50s while people in their 30s experienced mental disorders.
Why Overworking is Bad for Your Career
If better health and happiness aren’t enough of an incentive to do something about chronic overwork, it turns out overworking can have a legitimately negative impact on your performance.
Let’s dig deeper into the reasons why your productivity decreases when you’re overworked and stressed.
1. More input doesn’t necessarily mean more output.
Do longer work hours equate to more work getting done? Occasionally, yes — but not when “overtime” becomes the norm.
This theory is reinforced by a study of 40 countries, which examined the correlation between productivity per person and average working hours.
Results showed that countries like Colombia and Mexico, which have lower productivity, had longer working hours and fewer paid holidays.
On the other hand, countries like Norway and Luxembourg, where work-life balance is prioritized and the standards of living are high, performed better with higher productivity per person.
2. You call in sick because you are.
Overworked employees call in sick. Either because they are actually sick or they’re too exhausted to work.
Tristan Wright, a business coach, says long working hours can negatively impact business performance as it leads to increased absenteeism and higher turnover rates.
Employee productivity declines, and they become less motivated to go to work. This also causes overall business to suffer.
3. You lose sight of the bigger picture
Have you ever let a project consume you and your time? We’ve all been there.
While it’s not bad to get consumed by a project occasionally, it becomes risky if you make it a regular pattern.
When this happens, we lose sight of our long-term dreams and aspirations and channel our focus and energy into daily duties and tasks.
Our ambitions start to diminish. We develop a sense of resentment towards our job and the people we work for.
A study by Gallup shows that such low levels of morale and disengagement from jobs are contributing to a growing trend of “quiet quitting.”
It’s when employees may still physically show up for work but lack enthusiasm and passion for their tasks. They avoid taking on new responsibilities, stop contributing innovative ideas, and become less involved in team activities.
Likewise, HubSpot’s study discovered that, on average, marketing leaders think 17% of their employees are engaged in quiet quitting.
4. You pose a risk to yourself and others.
Overwork and longer hours are significant occupational safety and health (OSH) hazards as they lead to fatigue. We’ve already established that tired people make more mistakes.
Work-related fatigue makes you less alert, increasing the likelihood of accidents and errors. This can be particularly risky if you’re working in physically demanding jobs or in a sensitive environment like construction, hospitals, or laboratories.
A 2022 study by the Australian Medical Association on overworked and exhausted doctors showed that a staggering 60% were concerned about making clinical errors due to fatigue, up from 51% in 2021 and 48% in 2020.
Studies in the US have shown similar findings: Overworked doctors are prone to making more errors, endangering patient safety and resulting in more lawsuits.
5. Overworking hinders creativity.
A lack of sleep, stress, and other issues caused by overwork drains your energy and motivation and, ultimately, affects your creativity.
Research on overwork consistently shows that it can lead to decreased focus.
Why? Because creativity stems from a relaxed mind.
When you’re tired and overworked, you develop a myopic focus on completing immediate tasks, leaving little room for exploring new possibilities and thinking out of the box.
So, if you want to be creative, it‘s important to limit your work hours, get a good night’s sleep, and take time off when you feel like your mind is being drained of creative thoughts.
Pro tip: When you do take time off, keep a notepad or a phone nearby. Be sure to note your ideas down quickly when creativity strikes.
6. Exhaustion makes multitasking harder.
Your cognitive resources become depleted when your mind is exhausted, making it more challenging to switch between tasks and focus on multiple things at once.
Completing a single task takes longer. Therefore, the inability to be as productive as your usual self may add to your frustration.
The Symptoms of Overwork
How do you know you’re overworked?
When your mind and body are tired, they send you warning signs like persistent drowsiness, fatigue, or a general feeling of melancholy.
Here are some more symptoms to look out for.
Disorders like insomnia or poor sleep patterns can occur as a result of stress and overwork.
This can look like unintentional sleeping or dozing off during the day, waking up frequently during the night and having difficulty getting back to sleep, or taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep when you eventually go to bed.
If you’re having chronic tiredness, lack of energy, headache, dizziness, sore or aching muscles, muscle weakness, and slowed reflexes for days on end, this could very well mean that you have worker fatigue.
Lack of Concentration
Difficulty recalling minor details like names and dates from slips of memory, struggling to stay focused, inability to make decisions, and making careless mistakes. This can significantly affect your ability to complete daily tasks.
Weakened Immune System
Frequent colds, digestive issues, skin infections, increased anxiety, chest pains, and stress-induced headaches indicate that your work is compromising your immunity.
Feeling overwhelmed or melancholic, irritable, withdrawing from social interactions, and heightened pessimism are clear signs that your work is draining you emotionally and physically.
Frequent meal skipping due to lack of time or snacking on junk excessively leads to weight fluctuations and bad health.
Who’s to blame for overworking?
Chronically overworking isn‘t fun. It doesn’t feel good to realize you have to work through yet another family dinner or relaxing weekend.
So why do people do it? Is it because our bosses told us to? Or because we want to make more money? Or do we have some deep-seated psychological need?
In many cultures, bosses expect employees to put in long days, make themselves available via email 24/7, and work nights, weekends, and vacations without protest. In this version, Carmichael writes, “We overwork because we’re told to.”
This is especially evident in the three countries — America, South Korea, and Japan — where employees work longer hours.
The hustle culture in many companies today also pressures employees to overwork.
When a company’s climate encourages employees to overwork, making it a norm and something that is appreciated and incentivized, employees have no other choice but to be a part of that culture by behaving the same way.
“Hustle culture ideology says that people are overworking not because they’re economically driven to, but simply because this is the way go-getters get what they want,” BBC quotes Nick Srnicek, co-author of “After Work.”
When people perceive overworking as the only way to be accepted and get what they want, they’re setting the wrong examples for others. This relentless pursuit of becoming the “perfect employee” eventually takes a toll on your well-being and your performance.
… Or ourselves?
Many times, we push ourselves because that‘s the way our brains are wired. We either think that it’s the only way to achieve our goals, or we think overworking will get us where we want to be in life faster.
Either way, we set unreal and high expectations for ourselves and put all our energy towards achieving them, only to be demoralized when we’re unable to meet them.
How to Tackle Overwork
1. Try psychological detachment.
Understanding that your work is an integral part of your life and not letting it consume your existence is crucial to maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
“Psychological detachment” is a powerful concept that allows you to disassociate from work once your work hours are over.
According to a study examining the effects of overwork exhaustion and psychological detachment, employees who were able to effectively detach from their work experienced lower levels of physical exhaustion.
However, those whose jobs were over-demanding and hindered their ability to detach from work faced adverse health outcomes.
Another study on the topic showed that psychological detachment is crucial to recovering from work-related stress, and the inability to do so can cause early burnout.
Leave work at the office, and if you work from home, set strict timings for starting and ending work. Set clear boundaries, making sure to log off mentally and on your computer at the end of your work day.
Logging off but continually worrying about your work will keep you from enjoying your personal life, keep you stressed, and affect your performance the next day.
2. Take breaks using the 52/17 rule.
Research suggests that taking regular breaks is good for health and focus.
Boost your productivity levels by following the 52/17 rule. It’s a valuable time management technique where you work for 52 minutes and then take a 17-minute break. This way, you’ll prevent mental fatigue and save yourself from burning out.
Set a timer for 52 minutes, and when it goes off, take your break. Do a crossword, get some shut-eye, watch some Netflix, or have a light snack. Repeat the cycle throughout the day. Or adjust the time intervals to see what works best for you.
Some people prefer working for 30 minutes and taking a 5-minute break — the so-called Pomodoro technique.
3. Stick to your routine.
Self-determination is your biggest asset if you wish to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Follow a strict routine and prioritize tasks to help you allocate time for work, breaks, and personal activities appropriately.
A better routine helps reduce stress and improves mental and emotional health, making you sharp and energized. By sticking to a routine and holding yourself accountable, you are less likely to extend your workday or bring your work home.
4. Set boundaries.
Establishing boundaries is crucial to achieving a healthy work-life balance.
Set firm boundaries early and let everyone know, including your colleagues and superiors.
Occasionally replying to emails or text messages after work hours is OK. But make sure to put all emails and messages on hold once you’re home until the next morning.
Also, learn to say “no.” Get comfortable saying no if you‘re asked to work after hours or do something that is out of your jurisdiction and stick to your guns. Don’t feel guilty or pressured.
LendingTree chief credit analyst Matt Schulz says setting firm professional boundaries can help people feel better about their jobs.
Asserting your boundaries early on not only helps you avoid overwork but also communicates your limits to others sooner.
5. Keep in touch with your social circle.
Your friends and family serve as a valuable support network even when it comes to your professional life.
They provide honest feedback and identify destructive patterns. They’re the first to notice when you’re agitated, seem fatigued, or lose focus.
Keeping in touch with them on a regular basis can help you recognize symptoms of overwork early. Plus, hanging out with friends helps to take your mind off work and significantly improve your mental health.
6. Take time out for self-care.
Taking time out for yourself is not selfish. It’s necessary. Especially today when mental disorders and anxiety levels are at an all-time high.
“We must look after ourselves as well as we can because it will enable us to continue to perform well at work and in life,” Katrina Bannigan talks about the “Always On” culture in her book Skills for Practice in Occupational Therapy.
“If we monitor ourselves regularly, we should be able to identify warning signs (of stress, anxiety, and burnout),” she adds.
When we prioritize ourselves, it gives us a chance to recharge and keeps us from burning out. It takes some of the stress away, boosts creativity, enhances performance, and even improves our quality of life.
7. Talk to your boss.
If you feel constantly overwhelmed, it is time to talk to your boss.
Schedule a meeting with your manager to discuss your excessive workload and ask for support. Share your feelings of overwhelm and provide a detailed overview of your tasks and duties.
Work together to find which tasks can be delegated and to whom.
Your company culture can play a huge role in encouraging you to share your concerns openly.
If your company culture doesn’t support open communication about overwork, consider privately reaching out to your boss, a superior, or a colleague who may offer valuable advice and guidance. If you find it challenging to do so, it may be time to explore other job options.
Pro tip: Join the gym, schedule a spa date, or meditate with some yoga. Detach your work regularly and see how it improves your productivity and focus.
Now that you know six awesome ways to combat overwork, follow these tips to improve your work-life balance.
Know When It’s Time to Log Off
Working long hours may feel rewarding, especially when we think it brings us closer to becoming the ideal employee. But it’s detrimental to our mental and physical health and can lead to early burnout.
Research constantly suggests we work smarter, not harder, while keeping our work life in balance. Remember, prioritizing your mental, physical, and emotional well-being should never take a backseat to work commitments.
Put yourself first, get your priorities in order, and hold yourself accountable to benefit your health and career in the long run.
Editor’s Note: This blog post was originally published in June 2016, but has been updated for comprehensiveness and freshness.