Let's Stop Normalizing Excessive Workload - it kills people.

Excessive workload: the WHO 'bomb' report of May 2021

Long working hours led to 745 000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, according to the latest estimates by the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization published in Environment International recently.

Wow... I'll let that sink in for a minute. 745 000 premature deaths because of excessive workload.

The study concludes that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week.

It is not an exaggeration to say that long working hours can lead to premature death. 

These figures now place working long hours as responsible for about one-third of the total estimated work-related burden of disease. Excessive workload is now established as the #1 risk factor in terms of creating work-related diseases. 

How high workloads affect our mental and physical health

Chronic overwork can have a host of unsavory side-effects - the correlation between health decline and heavy workload has been established in MANY scientific studies.

Poor Physical Health

Obvious symptoms include an increase in stress levels and fatigue. Chronic stress is now well-known for triggering a plethora of long-term health complications including sleep loss, diabetes and heart disease. 

The effect of work overload often starts to be seen in low resistance to whatever flu is going around the office. Getting stuck with too much work leaves little time for exercise, rest or cooking nutritious meals - and that takes its toll on your immune system.

And let's not kid ourselves - our coping-mechanisms can become part of the problem. For example, researchers have found a correlation between an excessive workload and heavy drinking.  

Mental Health Downward spiral

At first, work overload can affect mood and emotional well-being. Ruminating over workload heightens anxiety and increases overall dissatisfaction with work. Worries about keeping up can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, especially if the boss makes comments about stepping up the pace. 

But in time, heavy workload can lead to chronic stress, and if you feel like you have no control on your workload, you may slip into anxiety, feelings of helplessness, and possibly depression - maybe without even realizing it.

If this goes on for too long, the next stop is burn-out. That's the point of no-return when you are SO exhausted and SO helpless, you actually stop caring. Something snaps and you can't function anymore. Either it's your body falling apart and forcing you to stop - or you simply cannot get out of bed anymore and do anything. 

Things companies will try to do to address the issue of excessive workload

Companies are being told to offer a healthier work/life balance to their employees for a few years now. The covid pandemic silver lining may be that companies have been forced into offering flexible working hours and location, allowing us to prove that no, it does not degrade output. 

But offering something and making it happen in practice are two different things... What usually happens is that HR communicates a lot about work/life balance, but management does not enable it, because of the pressure of workload & business results in a tough economic context.

My typical example of the monster-with-two-heads syndrome (as I call it) is with home schooling because of covid. HR says - if the school or daycare is closed and you need to take care of your kids during working hours, we do not expect you to compensate the hours in the evening or week-ends. Fabulous - in principle.

Because in reality all your deadlines and commitments are still running - so unless your boss helps you drop a few things (notice I am not saying distribute onto the rest of the team!), you won't yourself decide to stop a few projects... Not delivering one of your commitment will be on you at the end of the year during performance review.

But what I can do? Everybody else is doing it!

Your boss is sending emails everyday until 23h00 and is a workaholic without boundaries. Everybody around you in the team seems to be copying that behaviour so you feel like you don't have a choice but to do the same, because that is the performance standard of this team.

Let me share some tough love - the harsh truth is that nobody is forcing you to do the same! And you do not even have to compromise your end-of-the-year rating if you play this smartly, following these two ideas:

  1. Stand your ground and hold onto healthy thought patterns
  2. Set strong boundaries without compromising perception

1. Stand your ground

Healthy thought pattern #1: Excessive workload works against your productivity

You might expect an increased workload to result in higher productivity and output. This isn’t the case. Although you may see a temporary increase in productivity by raising your workweek from 40 hours to 60, you cannot sustain this for long periods of time. Not because of you, but because nobody can. 

Research from Stanford University shows that working too many hours a week or for too many consecutive days leads to less productivity over time. There is a highly non-linear effect, meaning that an additional five hour of work on top of 35 hours brings a much higher productivity than on top of 45 hours. 

Employee output appears to fall sharply after 50 hours, and then drops even more dramatically after 55 hours. In addition, an employee working 70 hours produces nothing more than someone working 55 hours, according to this study. Working this many hours a week is basically pointless.

The simple reality is that work, both mental and physical, results in fatigue that limits the cognitive and bodily resources available to you. You are not thinking clearly or moving as quickly or precisely when you are tired, and end up working more slowly for the same task. 

Doing less and creating more peace in our minds are not barriers to success, but enablers to sustained performance.

Healthy thought pattern #2: Excessive workload damages your career

If your mood and emotional resilience is affected by excessive workload, it may affect your performance on the job. Moodiness can strain relationships with co-workers and  supervisors, which is never working in your favor.

What's worse, a study by Boston University’s Questrom School of Business found, “Managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to.” Your boss won't even notice you are going above and beyond.

You even run the risk that this workload becomes the new expected standard volume of delivery. This in turn may backfire in your performance evaluation: while you are bringing your workload back to normal, your boss perceives it as 'failing to consistently deliver high-quality work'. 

Instead of obtaining relief from a sinking feeling of being underwater, your boss may add more stress by failing to understand what you are going through, which creates misunderstanding, tension between the two of you and a feeling of being alone with your problems for you. 

2. Set boundaries

Situation #1: forward-thinking management

If your manager is open-minded, you may want to have a conversation with them about well-being at work and her/his responsibility in role-modelling healthy behaviour. 

You may have internal company policy or communication to rely upon - or you may use the stats in this blog article to show genuine concern about the long-term consequences of her/his behaviour.

You may also try to build a coalition with your peers in this team, and sign a pact of non-competition and better work-life balance with your close colleagues. You can agree on a shared agreement to work really closely with each other to make sure that we can all do that, and show solidarity with each other if peaks of work appear. 

Case study #2: control-and-command management

The option that is left to you in a backwards-thinking culture is to find unobtrusive, under-the-radar ways to work far less than your colleagues who are fully devoted to work, yet “pass” as an ideal worker, and evade penalties for your 'noncompliance' to the always-on expectation. 

Concretely, it means for instance sending one smartly chosen email with your boss in copy (prepared in the afternoon) as a token that you are working in the evening - while really you are enjoying Netflix.

Or it could be that you choose to focus on cultivating mostly local clients so that you spend less time travelling. By using local clients, telecommuting, and controlling information about your whereabouts, you can find ways to work and travel less, without being found out.

Remember - your boss cannot make the difference in how much you work. If the results are delivered and your performance is good, the how you get there is up to you. So be smart about it - there is always a way you can put your health first. Your heart will thank you.

Are you willing to stand your ground and protect your health by managing your workload differently? What is the practical change you can start implementing as of this week?

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