Protecting Your Quality of Life
Self first, then others
Working or studying for long hours goes hand in hand with working hard and being productive. I’ve worked at many firms that believe this to be true. If the business owners or senior management spend a lot of time at work the chances are that their employees and subordinates will do the same in order to be seen in a favourable light.
Unfortunately for many firms where this is the case, staff turnover is often high and morale isn’t as good as it could be. Eventually even the quality of work begins to suffer and productivity decreases. In an effort to reverse the trend, managers can demand more from their teams who already feel that they are giving all that they can.
Academics and students don’t do much better. As the pressure to compete with other departments and institutions for research bursaries increases, the need to produce favourable results can lead to people working extremely long days, seven days a week which eventually affects the quality of the research and study in a negative way.
Trying to suggest to such people to spend less time working is often met with derision or dismissed as not being realistic. “If I don’t put the hours in how will the work get done”, is a response I used to give back to anyone that dared mention cutting back on the hours spent at work, whilst having to do more tasks.
But what if our assumptions about putting more time in at work are wrong and may in fact be the reason why we have to put more hours in?
Quantity and Effort
Let me start off by saying that I’m not opposed to working long hours per se, but my past experiences of working long hours and the results I achieved led me down the path of investigating if there was a better way of getting things done apart from spending all my waking hours trying to figure out how to finish my task on time.
In many professions long hours are a cultural norm (take junior doctors for example), and anyone challenging the status quo tend to be seen in an unfavourable manner that often can effect their career prospects. Those that complain can be made to seem weak and not up to the task of getting things done, which is all well and good, but can have a chilling effect on anyone who might have a better solution to just throwing more hours at a problem.
Another motivating tactic that is often used to get people to work longer and so increase productivity is to pay more money or overtime. This seems fair as your time and effort is being compensated for, but what about your health and family time? Again, there’s nothing wrong with working long hours but you have to take into account all aspects of your life (unless you live to work).
And full disclosure here, I regularly work long hours, but have found ways to manage that with my family and personal life. Working long hours from time to time I believe is acceptable, but what I don’t like is that it soon starts to be seen as the norm and exploited as such.
Grinding Ourselves Down
Perhaps a better question may be “What is the cost of working fatigued?” According to a fatigue cost estimator from the National Safety Council and Brigham and Women’s Sleep Matters Initiative, health-related cost of lost productivity is $136 billion a year. Further, a reported 70% of Americans regularly experience insufficient sleep. Sleep loss, especially in the presence of underlying sleep disorders, results in reduced workplace productivity and increased absenteeism, health care expenditures, workplace accidents and injuries, and motor vehicle accidents during commutes.Alger, S., Brager, A., Capaldi, V., & , (2019). Challenging the stigma of workplace napping. SLEEP, 42(8),
When working long hours becomes the norm, that’s when the negative effects on work start to take hold. Working long hours for short periods of time is okay and is needed from time to time to get things done due to an unforeseen oversight or event.
Prolonged overworking leads to work fatigue and stress which can have negative effects on your health and wellbeing. Work fatigue is negative for both employee and employer or company.
Employees presenting high levels of work fatigue displayed lower job satisfaction, psychological health, physical health, and organisational commitment, coupled with accrued turnover intentions and difficulties to relax after work. Work fatigue is damaging both psychologically and physically, leading to less efficient work recovery, negative work attitudes and health-related difficulties.Blais, A., Gillet, N., Houle, S., Comeau, C., & Morin, A. (2020). Work Fatigue Profiles: Nature, Implications, and Associations With Psychological Empowerment.Frontiers in Psychology,11,
So how do you know if you are suffering from work fatigue? Here’s a list of signs to lookout for:
- Constantly yawning
- Falling asleep when sitting still
- Feeling tired throughout the day
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling tired when waking up in the morning
- Unmotivated to go to work and/or finish tasks
- Physical exhaustion
I mentioned earlier that I also regularly work long hours and have found ways that help me reduce the effects of doing so on my health and personal life.
At first it may seem easier said than done, but by being consistent and working through these steps (and those that you find for yourself, that work for you) you’ll find that you’ll be able to maintain a high level of work whilst at the same time feeling like you have more energy.
Let’s get to it, in no particular order, here are some tips that you may find helpful in reducing the effects of working long hours over a prolonged period of time.
Give Purpose or Meaning to What You Do
- Where does your current profession fit into the bigger plan for your life? Does it align with your life’s goals?
- Figure out what are the implications of your current task for you, your team and/or company.
- Figure out which is more important to you, your life or your work life and reorganise as needed (I’m not suggesting that you walk out of your job because the quality of your life is more important! For example if your home life is more important, then start to organise your work life around your personal life if that is possible. If not, then figure out how to make it so).
Look After Your Health
- Although your employer (even if you are self employed) may try to make things at work as comfortable as they can for you, don’t neglect your own health.
- Take regular breaks whilst at work (every 25 – 30 mins) where you get up and walk around.
- If your job permits, after lunch have a 10 – 20 minute nap to help refocus your mind, relieve any tiredness and give you a quick boost in your energy levels without having to resort to caffeine.
- Take regular exercise
- Get outside more (maybe during one of your scheduled breaks throughout the day). Getting daylight to your skin and eyes helps regulate your circadian rhythm which in turn will help improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, heavy meals and smoking before going to bed.
- Go to bed at regular times and get between 7 – 10 hours of sleep per night (even on weekends and holidays).
There is constant pressure to perform well at work and whilst studying. Some people assume that spending many hours working or studying is time well spent. Unfortunately due to no fault of their own, they are ignorant to the fact that it doesn’t work.
Schools, workplaces and cultural norms reinforce this misguided path as the logical common sense way to achieve great results. It is further reinforced by the “Captains of Industry” who often are cited as having little time for sleep.
Scientific studies are continually updating their findings regarding work fatigue and it currently seems to be clear that working long hours over a long period of time increases the chances of suffering from work fatigue and stress which can negatively affect health and quality of work.
Sleep deprivation, in some populations, is still considered a point of pride and a reflection of toughness. However, this argument is based largely in ignorance and companies are beginning a movement to counteract it. Along with recommendations to sleep 7-9 hours at night, daytime naps are being integrated into workplace culture in the world’s largest grossing tech, consulting, media, and retail companies.Alger, S., Brager, A., Capaldi, V., & , (2019). Challenging the stigma of workplace napping. SLEEP, 42(8),