Are we digging an early grave by working too hard?

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Do you encourage your employees to burn the midnight oil? Or do you persuade them to get home and get some rest?

It might feel counterproductive to persuade your employees to work fewer hours, but you might be surprised at how much of a negative impact overtime has on their health. 

1/5 people works nearly 8 extra hours each week for no pay

According to the Trades Union Congress, 20% of UK workers put in a jaw-dropping average of 7.7 hours of unpaid overtime every single week.

Some industries seem worse than others, and the education sector seems particularly harsh. More than 50% of teachers are putting in overtime that they never get paid for, at a whopping average of nearly 12 hours per week!

Now, I’m sure most of you will agree that this attitude is admirable. Teachers who dedicate their lives to their careers certainly deserve our respect. But beyond the obvious financial impact of working for free, what are the other costs of unpaid overtime? A closer look at the statistics paints an ugly picture of an overworked nation of people with a fast-track ticket to an early grave.

Too much overtime is strongly linked to heart disease

The Whitehall II study has been tracking the health of over 10,000 civil servants for over 30 years. Thankfully, the study suggests that an extra hour or two per day isn’t going to do you much harm. But for people who have a habit of working three hours or more beyond their regular seven-hour day, we see a very different story.

According to the study, people who work for three hours or more once their seven-hour day is over, are 60% more likely to suffer heart-related illness such as heart attacks and angina.

But is work the actual cause of poor health? Or is the relationship non-causal? Or, in other words, are the kind of people who are prone to heart disease, also prone to working longer hours?

Do long hours really affect our health?

The report admits that it might not be long hours that are causing illness. It suggests that people who work longer hours may be prone to other lifestyle choices that are affecting their health.

However, Dr Marianna Virtanen, who was involved with the Whitehall II study, suggests that chronic stress – something frequently associated with working long hours – affects the metabolic processes. This could be an indication that the relationship between long hours and heart disease is a causal relationship, not a coincidental one. She also suggests that factors such as lack of sleep, or not enough time to relax before sleep, may play a part in this overtime-illness correlation.

Of course, this study only looks at people in the public sector. What about the rest of us in the private sector? Are we a perfect picture of health, or are we equally stressed out and run-down because of work?

44% of UK workers regularly feel tired, run-down or under the weather

We decided to conduct our own little study to try and find out exactly how healthy UK workers are. We shared a survey with employees working in many different sectors all over the country, and found out some interesting information about their health and wellbeing:

  1. 37% of UK workers are not getting enough sleep
  2. 32% of UK workers have an unhealthy diet
  3. 80% of UK workers do not get enough exercise

What’s more, we found out that 44% of UK workers regularly feel tired, run-down or under the weather.

Healthy employees produce better results

So why should we care about our employees’ health? Well, beyond the obvious moral answer, it seems that health and wellbeing is strongly linked to productivity.

Bloomberg School of Public Health reported on a 13-year study, in fact, where the performance of multiple companies was tracked. Those with exceptional health and wellness programmes far out-performed those without. They achieved massive growth in terms of profits and share price.

We should focus less on hours worked, and more on taking care of our teams

We are living in a vicious circle. We work too hard, which makes us ill. Our health impacts our productivity. Our drop in productivity makes us feel like we should be working harder. And so it goes on, until we either realise that our health is important, or we run ourselves into the ground.

Personally, I’m going to do everything I can to help my employees understand the importance of looking after themselves. I’m going to do everything I can to stop them running themselves into the ground. What will you be doing?

I will leave you with one final thought. On average, UK employees work for 1,677 hours per year. Norwegian employees, however, work just 1,427. Which country do you think is the most productive?

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