You might have seen the headlines recently: working long hours isn’t good for our health. Maybe you read the headlines and chose to blissfully ignore them, excusing yourself as the exception to the rule. Whether we work overtime regularly, or once in a blue moon, it’s important to know the impact it might be having on our health. And, if you are an employer, it’s your obligation to protect the health of your people by proactively managing their work hours.
In this article, we welcome comments from experienced employment lawyer Caro Rieger from Black Door Law. In the pop-out box below, she shares her insights into the duties and obligations of employers when it comes to avoiding overwork.
Burnout continues to be a hot topic of workplace mental health and, while working long hours is not a prerequisite to burnout, overwork can certainly contribute to the energy depletion component that is so central to how it manifests.
Recent research by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that people around the world who work long hours (defined as at least 55 hours per week) are at heightened risk of heart disease and stroke compared to those who work standard hours (35-40 hours per week). Nearly one in 10 adults globally are estimated to be working these long hours, contributing to approximately three quarters of a million deaths annually (according to data collected in 2016).
While many New Zealanders might not count themselves among these statistics, Kiwis generally do work longer hours, on average, compared to other OECD countries. Additionally, WHO/ILO data found that the proportion of stroke-related deaths (3.4%) and heart disease-related deaths (2.4%) in 2016, due to long working hours in New Zealand, was higher than in other Western countries including Australia, UK, Canada and the USA.
There are at least two possible reasons why overworking might lead to such adverse health outcomes. First, the more we work, the more likely it is that our physiological stress response is activated, triggering harmful changes throughout our bodies when this stress is ongoing (not least including heightened blood pressure and the formation of fat deposits in our arteries).
Second, people who work longer hours are more likely to adopt unhealthy behavioural responses to this heightened stress – including substance use, bad eating habits, lack of exercise, disrupted sleep – all of which are also risk factors for illness and disease.
Our team has written extensively about steps we can take to mitigate these risks from a wellbeing perspective – including reducing burnout risk, providing proactive organisational support, creating a culture of wellbeing at work, and building rest and recovery into our everyday rhythms.
For more ideas on supporting team health and wellbeing, feel free to explore our article archives or get in touch with us.