A work culture that celebrates, if not demands, overworking by employees creates unnecessary harm to physical and mental health, and puts workers in danger of burnout, disease and accidents. The pandemic has only worsened the instance of overwork and the risks it poses. New approaches to protecting workers from harmful overtime are needed.

How many times have managers praised workers that “go the extra mile” and “rise and grind” to put in extra time to get the work done?

Enthusiasm for work are positive traits in any team member, and those traits has developed into a culture that values and expects overwork. Often good employees are willing to – or feel pressure to – take on extra shifts or projects, resulting in untracked and unrewarded overtime. And this, studies show, causes fatigue-related misjudgments and accidents on the job, and it can lead to mental and physical illness.

The added stress everyone is experiencing due to the Covid pandemic, coupled with the blurred work/life lines created by working from home or added pressures placed on so-called essential workers, is only making the overwork crisis worse, putting more and more people at risk. The pandemic has also put demands on workers by imposing a need to adapt to new technologies for how work is done and new business models for how organisations operate.

For manual labour workers, fatigue due to overtime can lead to accidents, while for administrative or desk professionals the chances of making poor decisions or giving faulty advice increase with overwork. How dangerous is overworking, and how can the various actors—government, employers, workers—combat this risky culture of overtime? Read on to find out more.

How dangerous is overwork?

There is a growing body of evidence to support just how much fatigue caused by overwork puts employees and organisations at risk. A study by Insurance Journal shows, among other alarming findings, a 61 percent greater likelihood of being injured when working overtime, and an increase in chances of developing chronic disease such as diabetes, arthritis or cancer.

The World Health Organisation, together with the International Labour Organisation, estimates nearly 400,000 people died from stroke and nearly 350,000 from heart disease in 2016 as a result of working 55 hours or more per week, and that, between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease due to working long hours increased by 42%, and from stroke by 19%.

Despite long-established standards on working hours set by the ILO, a lack of monitoring and a pervasive mentally that working overtime, whether financially rewarded or not, is a normal expectation persists. Businesses too often take the gamble of being found violating safety regulations to overwork employees. And it’s to nobody’s benefit: The US Occupational Safety and Health Organisation (OSHA) productivity drops off after 50 hours of work.

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How to fight against overwork

So what can be done? There are several actors, including workers themselves, who can help set and protect boundaries to ensure workers are not put at risk of causing or suffering from accidents or are not compromising their mental or physical health through working too long and too hard. Engagement, upskilling, task re-engineering, and digital continuity are all paths to productivity gains that can generate efficiency. In other words, less is more.

Governments must prioritise the issue of promoting and generating a global regulatory/legal framework to establish the working model, as in the European case with the Digital Disconnection legislation, which ensure workers the right to “shut down” from work without any negative consequences.

As part of showing concern for the general wellbeing of staff, employers themselves must focus on establishing realistic and fair flexible working hours and protecting workers with a set maximum number of working hours – per week or per shift – to ensure safety and help secure a healthy work/life balance for employees.

Workers themselves can help create an atmosphere of well-being in the workplace by participating and in psychosocial prevention programmes and maintaining a positive and collaborative attitude in the work environment.

And at the forefront, we as a society need to change the way we view and celebrate overwork, and shift our focus to valuing work-life balance, productivity and health in the workplace.

Improving corporate wellbeing approaches

A consolidated strategy to combat overwork and the great harm it causes is needed. This must involve address wellbeing at several levels at the same time: physical wellbeing, emotional wellbeing, social wellbeing, and occupational wellbeing. Despite this being essential to providing healthy and safe work environments, many employers report difficulty approaching these important subjects.

According to a recent Adecco Group study, a majority of executive leaders feel unequipped to handle conversations around mental wellbeing. The study finds that 54% think it is difficult to provide effective advice to staff on their mental well-being during the pandemic, and similarly, 50% say it’s difficult to remain aware of how their staff are feeling.

This is significant because, according to the same report, 28% of employees say their mental health has declined during the pandemic, and 80% say their employer is responsible for ensuring a better working world after COVID-19.


Moving forward

Although employers are tasked with getting the most out of their staff and workers are committed to performing to the levels demanded by their managers, we must not lose sight of the limits all humans have when it comes to overwork. Levels of concentration and focus, which are needed for any type or level of job, must be maintained to perform successfully and safely, and science proves these levels drop when fatigue increases.

There must be deeper agreement and understanding in the workplace that there are simply only so many hours a person can work before their health and job performance will suffer. Prioritising stress reduction and life/work balance is necessary to preventing overwork and its detrimental result. Society across the board must fundamentally rethink the value it places on working ourselves, sometimes literally, to death.


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