A recent New York Times article shared unsettling research about how your health is affected by your work.
A Harvard Medical School study found that 23% of workers experience insomnia and many others are suffering from a lack of rest. Sleep deprivation is costing US companies $63.2 billion in lost productivity each year.
A study by consultants at the Manpower Group found that over 35% of people eat lunch at their desk every day and most employees never take enough breaks to renew their energy.
A Pew Research Center study found that over 50% of employed people check their work email on the weekends and 34% of them check email on vacation.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There is a wealth of research that proves that we’re ruining our health and productivity by working too hard and too long.
And now for the important question…
What does this mean for your health and what can you do about it?
“Death by Overwork”
High stress levels can ruin pretty much any health goal you have: you’ll store more fat, you’ll struggle to gain muscle, you’ll have less energy, you’ll have a higher risk of heart attack and stroke, and dozens of other undesirable things that I’ll skip for now.
But the effects of stress don’t stop there…
In Japan, physicians have a diagnosis that is called “karoshi.” Karoshi literally translates to “death by overwork” and it refers to the sudden death of an employee, usually from a heart attack or stroke due to stress at work. 1
Japan first added karoshi as a death category in 1980 and since that time the number of deaths that fall within that category has soared. Not only that, but karoshi has also been labeled as the cause for hundreds of severe illnesses, suicide attempts and mental illnesses each year.
As the death toll mounted, the Japanese government put pressure on companies to change. Toyota limited the amount of overtime an employee could work each month. Mitsubishi Bank allowed employees to go home up to three hours early to care for children or elderly relatives.
Here’s what’s interesting about this: Japan is one of the only countries in the world that counts karoshi as a separate death category.
In America, we have just as many deaths from work stress, but we don’t hear about it because we don’t keep track of it in the same way. In other words, many Americans are literally “working themselves to death” and nobody is doing anything about it because we don’t have the numbers to prove it.
How to Overcome Overwork
The typical response at this point would be to blame the American work culture, make a statement about how your boss would never allow you to work less, and point a finger at The Man.
But here’s the thing…
While I agree that we need to put more emphasis on healthy work environments for everyone — from investment bankers to medical residents to coal miners — I also believe it’s your personal responsibility to go to work on yourself, just as much as it’s your responsibility to go to work in general.
Don’t play the role of the victim and wait for your boss, your company, or your government to step in and make your health a priority. It’s your health. Do it yourself. Besides, even if you’re lucky enough to work at a company that really focuses on a healthy work environment, it’s still up to you to actually take advantage of the opportunities.
And if you’re in a terrible work environment, you can still do something. Your circumstances rarely prevent you from making progress. That progress may be slow, difficult, or unsexy … but you have options. (That’s just as true for your life in general as it is for your health specifically.)
How to Reduce Stress at Work: 10 Practical Ideas
With that said, here are 10 ways you can reduce stress at work each day. Not all of them will be realistic for your job, but some of them will. Focus on the ones that work for you and forget about the rest.
1. Work in 90–minute sessions. After studying elite athletes, musicians, actors, and chess players, Dr. K. Anders Ericsson at Florida State University discovered that the top performers work in approximately 90–minute sessions and then take a break. They focus intensely and then give themselves time to recover and regain energy. (Interestingly, Ericsson also produced the research behind the “10,000 Hour Rule” for expertise that Malcolm Gladwell popularized.)
2. Break your day up with exercise. You’re probably aware that exercise reduces stress, but there are some rarely talked about benefits of exercise as well. Regardless of why you exercise, the bottom line is this: get out and move.
3. When you leave work, leave work. I’ll admit that I’m just as guilty as anyone else when it comes to answering work emails at all hours of the day. That said, on the evenings when I’ve ignored my inbox I’ve noticed something: nothing changes. When the work day starts, I still have things to do and people to respond to; the additional time the night before doesn’t make the next day any easier.
Give your email a rest for a night or two and see if work is any different the next day. Your time outside of the office should be spent on you and the people you care about, not in your inbox.
4. Do something creative (either at work or outside of it). Numerous studies have proven that creative pursuits like music, art, and writing reduce stress. Plus, creativity helps you avoid living a short, unimportant life. My creative outlet is photography. What’s yours?
5. Meditate. If you don’t think you have enough time to meditate (or you aren’t sure how to get started), then read this Harvard Business Review article.
6. Breathe. It sounds so simple, but we rarely make time in our day to just breathe. The good news is that you can do this anytime, including right now. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Breathe in through your nose for a count of three and out through your mouth for a count of five. Do this 5 times and see how you feel.
7. Leave your desk for lunch. Give yourself some space and get out of the work environment. There’s a reason why people suggest getting a fresh breath of air.
8. Take a short nap. A University of California researcher found that a 60–minute nap improved memory just as much as a 8–hours of sleep. Short naps of 20 minutes have shown big benefits as well. And to top it all off, this study revealed that occasional napping can lead to a 12% decrease in heart disease and daily napping can lead to a 37% reduction.
9. Take vacation more frequently. And when you’re on vacation, be on vacation. The emails, phone calls, and presentations can wait.
10. Get to sleep earlier. This study found that when basketball players got 10 hours of sleep the night before, their shooting accuracy improved by 9% the next day. I’m guessing you could benefit from moving and thinking more accurately as well. (Not to mention that it might be nice to get 10 hours of sleep.)
The evidence is overwhelming: you need to take an active interest in living healthy and reducing stress or you will die sooner. I can’t say it any clearer than that.
Is Working Hard Worth It?
All this talk of stress from work can leave you thinking that hard work isn’t worth it.
Working hard is worth every bit of your effort. You’ll never regret choosing greatness for your life and going for it.
But the question you need to ask is, “Are you working hard on the right things?”
Do you give your health as much focus as your work? Do you give your relationships as much emphasis as your deadlines? Do you make time for exploring, creating, and traveling, just like you make time for meetings, conference calls, and clients?
Or are you simply spending all of your time at work?
In the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
What could be more worth doing than working on your health and happiness?