The workplace is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States—higher than diabetes, influenza, Alzheimer’s and kidney disease—according to experts. Chronic work stress can feel like an enemy infiltrator—a cruel ghost, haunting you day and night, stalking you on a pressure-cooker workday, lurking over your shoulder while you’re pitching ideas to clients and coworkers or facing impossible deadlines. While work stress is a normal and inevitable part of our careers, when un-managed it can be deadly, making you sick—even killing you.
Neuroscientists have found that whatever we think and feel finds its way into the body, and the body bears the burden of stress. Anxiety and depression, for example, play havoc with your mind as well as your heart, according to new research. The study conducted at the University of South Australia, published in BioMedical Engineering, draws a link between mental illness and widely fluctuating blood pressure, which can lead to cardiovascular disease and organ damage.
Work Stress And Workplace Death
Last month marked Mental Health Awareness Month. Nearly 80% of employees cite stress and burnout as their biggest challenges in the workplace. They are worried about their mental health, and they have every right to worry. In their research, Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford professor of organizational behavior along with his colleagues, identified 10 workplace stressors that contribute to 120,000 excess deaths annually and account for $190 billion in health care costs:
- No health insurance
- Organizational injustice
- High job demands
- Shift work
- Secondhand smoke exposure
- Low job control
- Low social support
- Long work hours
- Job insecurity
In China, it’s estimated that one million people a year die from overwork. According to a 2021 World Health Organization study, overwork killed more than 745,000 people a year through stroke and heart attack. The number of deaths due to long work hours from heart disease increased by 42% and from stroke by 19% between 2000 and 2016. In South Korea, working long hours used to be a badge of honor until work pressure slowed labor productivity and played a role in more than 500 suicides a year, spawning a law that capped workweeks to 52 hours. After working weeks without a break and pressuring his employees to work 20-hour days, Lee Han-bit took his life. He left a note that decried a South Korean work culture that exploited him and required him to pass the exploitation on to his crew: “I, too, was nothing but a laborer,” he wrote. “But then, he added, “I was nothing more or less than a manager who squeezed the laborers.”
The Japanese coined a name for their 10,000 workers a year who drop dead from putting in 60-to-70-hour workweeks: karoshi—which translates as death from overwork. Otherwise healthy workers keel over at their desks after a long stretch of overtime or after consummating a high-pressure deal, usually from a stroke or heart attack. Karoshi among corporate workers in their forties and fifties is so common that the Japanese workplace has been dubbed “a killing field.” In India work addiction is called “a poison by slow motion.”
Although we don’t have statistics or comparable English names for karoshi, corporate breadwinners dropping dead from overwork have been making headlines for decades in the United States. Workers who labor 55-hour weeks are a third more likely to suffer a stroke than those working fewer than forty hours. A body of research shows that lengthy work hours quickly extinguish the fever work pitch and harm employee mental and physical health. Researchers discovered that workers who put in more than 11 hours a day were 67% more likely to have a heart attack, compared to those who put in fewer hours. Another study found that working over 48 hours per week was tied to poorer mental health, higher levels of anxiety and depression, reduced sleep and more sleep disturbances.
Develop A Preventive Self-Care Plan
Career success doesn’t have to come at the expense of sweat equity, burnout or loss of mental or physical health. Work shouldn’t make us physically sick or kill us. According to a study of 3.1 million people, employees are working longer hours and spending 13% more time in meetings than they did pre-pandemic. Some forward-thinking companies like Zoox has cut back on weekly meetings, implementing once a week no-meeting afternoons. These blocks are meant to give employees dedicated, focused, creative and independent work time in their busy schedules. Other companies are adopting similar measures.
But don’t wait for your company to decide what’s in your best mental health interests. Always have a work health plan in your hip pocket. Start with self-compassion. Research shows that people who practice self-compassion (treat themselves with love and care just as they would a close friend or family member), have lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Begin by assessing your job and life and decide for yourself what you need to do to reduce job stress and bring more work-life balance. Be prepared to put your foot down when you believe your employer oversteps your boundaries. There are many occasions on the job when you have a choice to stay late, work weekends or enjoy remote work. You may be reluctant to stand your ground. But feeling overloaded and saying no without feeling guilty or disloyal is a healthy practice.
The prefix “micro” means short or extremely small, but there’s nothing small about the big potential of five-minute Microchillers to promote your mental health and productivity in a short amount of time. Micro-adjustments in your work habits throughout the workday—stretching, walking up and down stairs, gazing out a window at nature, snacking or having a brief mindful meditation—are effective energy management strategies that boost work health and wellness. Scientists have discovered that the brain works differently when employees take breaks between meetings, stopping cumulative stress from building up, giving the brain a chance to “reset.” Striving for balance in your personal life may be a high-wire act, but it ensures greater harmony within yourself and makes it easier for you to survive and thrive under work pressures.