Feeling overworked? Here’s what happens to your mind (and body) when you work long hours

There’s a dark side to the modern always-on, super-connected workplace. Despite being more productive than ever, we’re also working more than ever. Modern workers are seriously overworked and putting in longer hours than at any time since statistics have been kept.

The problem is that instead of our minds and bodies telling us we need to cut back, they adapt. But only to a certain extent. Eventually the long hours take their tolls and we wind up exhausted, stressed, and burnt out.

Long working hours aren’t a long-term solution for anyone. So how do we recognize when we’re being overworked and stop it from running us into the ground?

The 2 reasons why we’re all overworked

why we're all overworked

There’s a few popular narratives around overwork. In one, we work long hours because our managers force us to. There are expectations to be always available, night and day, for emails, calls, and meetings, regardless of your other commitments.

Just look at the 2015 New York Times’ article outlining the management practices at Amazon where workers “toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are unreasonably high.”

Certainly your working situation can cause you to be overworked. But long hours aren’t always imposed on us.

The other narrative that’s harder to come to terms with is that we choose to overwork ourselves.

Pushed on by a grab bag of guilt, ambition, pride, and a desire to prove ourselves in a competitive marketplace, we watch 5PM slip by and skip happy hour in favor of happy bosses.

If recognition goes to the person who works nights and weekends and never takes vacation, what message does that send?

Whatever or whomever is to blame, overwork is no longer just a by-product of our work culture, but the very basis of it. Being “busy” gives us social and workplace cachet. It’s a badge of honor that tells others that you’re needed.

Rather than celebrate the efficient, productive worker that gets her work done in half the time, we celebrate the martyr putting in 80-hour weeks.

Being overworked isn’t just the hours we give up. But how much of ourselves we give up every day.

But this is ridiculous. Isn’t it? Why celebrate working ourselves to the bone?

The issue isn’t simply that we’re toiling away while secretly hating our jobs. Instead, being overworked has forced us to adapt again. We’ve made our jobs so much a part of our lives and our identity that breaking up with them seems impossible.

Comparing our relationship to work to a passionate romantic one, Gianpiero Petriglieri, organizational behavior professor at INSEAD, writes:

“Romance has long been known for making us lose our minds. It is no different when work is involved…

“We ‘over’ work not when we work too hard but when working becomes less of a means and more of an end. When meditation, exercise, sleep, holidays, and even parenting, are cast as tools to make us better workers.”

Because work is who we are, we strive to find passion in the workplace. (Just think back to that tired old cliche of how “if you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day of your life”). But one thing we forget is that passion has no concern for efficiency. It’s only about expressing devotion.

The more work becomes a part of our identity, the more passionate we feel we need to be about it, the easier it is to become overworked. As comedian Robin Williams put it when starkly describing his drive and creative expression:

“Some people say it’s a muse. No, it’s not a muse! It’s a demon!”

What research tells us about what happens when we overwork ourselves

overworked science

Overwork doesn’t just lead to exhaustion and burnout. The story of being overworked is literally one of diminishing returns. Time and time again, research has discovered that our productivity falls off a cliff after a certain number of hours worked.

Not only that, but feeling overworked can have serious impacts on our mental and physical well-being.

Overwork leads to impaired sleep, heavy drinking, and depression

According to numerous studies by Marianna Virtanen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems, including:

  • Impaired sleep
  • Depression
  • Heavy drinking
  • Diabetes
  • Impaired memory
  • Heart disease

Put bluntly, the more hours we work, the less healthy we become.

And this isn’t just a massive problem for us as individuals. It’s also terrible for a company’s bottom line as all of these symptoms lead to increased absenteeism, turnover, and rising employee dissatisfaction.

Overwork makes it harder to communicate, collaborate, and work with others

Even when you’re not feeling the physical effects of being overworked, those long hours make you less effective at your job.

Researchers have found that overwork makes you worse at interpersonal communication, making judgement calls, reading other people’s faces, and managing your own reactions. Pretty much everything that makes us good colleagues and good employees.

More work doesn’t equal more output

The most common reason to work long hours and put yourself at risk of being overworked is simply because things “need” to get done. But while pulling all-nighters or coming in on the weekends might help you get work done. It won’t be at the quality you expect.

In a study by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University Questrom School of Business, managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to.

In other words, the only thing putting in long hours will get you recognized for is being the person who works long hours.

Feeling overworked doesn’t have to be the norm

No one benefits from being overworked. Yet we still do it (and do it to ourselves!)

To save our minds and our bodies, we need to shift our mindset from celebrating long hours and “passion” to making balance, productivity, and efficiency our gold standard.

To start, we can ask for help. Being overworked often comes from feeling overwhelmed with your daily tasks. Instead of just ignoring that part of your brain telling you there’s already too much on your plate, take a break, step back, say no to more requests, and make a plan to prioritize, delegate, and single-task your way to breathing room.

Next, get rid of or reduce the stressors in your workday. Biologically, the human brain wasn’t meant to be in high-stress mode all the time. Yet that’s often how our days look.

Start by looking for some of the more common stressors that are adding anxiety and lengthening your workday, such as unrealistic deadlines, frequent schedule changes or conflicts, responsibilities beyond what should be expected, and time-consuming interpersonal demands. Find which of these are asking for your time and find ways to remove or reduce them.

Finally, be realistic about what can actually get done in a day. All of us are susceptible to what’s called the Planning Fallacy—a cognitive bias that makes us over optimistic about how much we can get done in a day. Realistically speaking, most knowledge workers only have 2.5-3 hours a day of productive time.

Try to plan your day and make your daily schedule around that rather than assuming you have 8 hours at your disposal.


A growing body of research shows not only how being overworked hurts us. But also that shorter work days and weeks are more productive. Yet for some reason we still glorify the 10+ hour day and being constantly “busy”.

But overwork doesn’t help anyone. Not you, your health, or your company. And understanding that and protecting yourself from slipping into long hours is one of the best things you can do for your productivity.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

2 comments

  1. Dear Jory,
    This is the second article that you authored which I have read. As a marketing and PR professional suffering from burnout, I cannot tell you how much your insight and wisdom about burnout has helped better understand this syndrome. I hit a wall and I was fortunate enough to have my job in a toxic environment eliminated!!! Now, I have to pick up the pieces and the healing process is very painful. But your articles give me so much hope and encouragement.
    Thank you,
    Sandra

    1. I’m so happy the post helped Sandra. Burnout can be a terrible feeling and I’m glad you’ve found a way to move forward!

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