Why can’t we stop overworking?

Last updated on 
June 15, 2021

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If you’ve felt overworked lately, it’s probably because you are. New studies show that in the past year, the average worker put in 9.2 hours of unpaid overtime per week —two more hours than in 2020. Since the pandemic hit and the world was sent home to work, it became clear that people were putting in more hours each week—not fewer, as many first assumed—and as a society, we’ve never worked more than we’re doing today. But though it’s flourished over the past year, the culture of overwork can be traced back much further than 2020, as can our tendency to glorify it. So what’s behind the “cult of overwork”? Why can’t we stop overworking?

The reasons we overwork

While it can be tempting to assume someone’s overworked because they’re bad at planning or time management, it’s important to understand that the culture of overwork runs much deeper than this. Because it isn’t just about the fact that we’re working longer hours—it’s about the fact that so many of us wear our stress and busyness like a badge of honor or status symbol, and rather than bemoan our long hours and stressed lifestyle, we brag about them instead.

There are in fact powerful social and environmental reasons behind our culture of overwork. The first is that because so many of us are working remotely now, the boundaries between work and home have become increasingly eroded. When we sleep where we work, and work where we sleep, there’s no separation between personal and professional—no commute that allows us to transition in and out of “work mode”. This contributes to the increasingly pervasive “always on” mentality.

Add to that the fact that most of us use our personal devices for work, and it becomes even harder to end the work day. We’re constantly digitally available, which means we can never fully disconnect from work; we send emails while lying in bed, and reply to Slack comments while eating dinner. Plus, when you work from home it’s easy to skip breaks and work longer hours without even noticing. Home has become our workplace—which means work itself has become inextricable.

And then there’s the cult of “going the extra mile” and our obsession with productivity. Billionaire tycoons like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk boast about structuring their day to ensure maximum output and, in the case of the latter, are willing to work 120 hours a week, sometimes never even leaving the office (even just to step outside) for three or four days. The unspoken implication is that if we’re not willing to do this, we’re not really giving our all; that normally we don’t have the necessary drive, passion or commitment to succeed or achieve anything real.

And finally, there are reasons that stem from economic insecurity and an unstable economy, which have only been exaggerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. We overwork simply because we want to prove our worth and dedication to our employers. Feeling invisible is one of the most common complaints surrounding remote work, and it’s understandable that many of us turn to virtual presenteeism to try to counteract these feelings. By working longer and harder, we feel like we’re doing what we can to stay in the sight and minds of our employers.

The implications of overwork

Overworking is clearly easily done, but it comes at a high price for our health and wellbeing. New research actually shows that people who work more than 54 hours a week are at major risk of dying: each year, three-quarters of a million people die from heart disease and stroke caused by working long hours. Incredibly, this means that more people are dying from overworking than from malaria.

While death might be the worst possible outcome of overwork, it’s by no means the only dangerous one. Working long hours can lead to chronic stress, which can cause elevated blood pressure and cholesterol. And then there are the changes that stress and burnout cause in the ways we act and feel: we might engage in harmful behaviors like stress eating and drinking too much; we might not be able to sleep well; we might feel angry, upset, frustrated and irritable. And of course, these factors all have a major impact on our relationships and self-worth—as well as our ability to pursue any personal development outside of work.

If this culture of overwork continues to develop at the same pace, and in the same direction, it’s clear that the world will have a new global health crisis to deal with—albeit one that not only have we dismissed for years, but we’ve also actually glorified.

While this all may make for rather grim reading, it’s not all doom and gloom, however. One positive effect that’s stemmed from the pandemic is an increased focus on employee wellbeing. The importance of recognizing the humanity and individuality of employees has never been so critical, and many organizations are taking active steps to help their team avoid overworking. Ultimately though, countering this harmful cult will be a group effort: employers need to ensure their people don’t feel like they need to overwork, as well as creating a culture that lets people safely raise issues around unhealthy workloads and expectations; employees themselves need the solidarity not to glorify or further the culture of overwork.

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