Feeling Overworked? You’re Not Alone

Feeling Overworked? You’re Not Alone
Photo by Kristopher Roller

How are you feeling today? If your answer is anything along the lines of tired, anxious, or generally stressed out, there’s a good chance you may be overworked.

Feeling overworked and underpaid is become more and more common across the developed world. While the oft-quoted phrase “Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” is motivating to many of us, in reality how much you love your job will have little effect on feelings of being overworked and overwhelmed, and generally needing to step back from your work to catch your breath.

The American Institute of Stress (AIS) conducted a survey that found that 40% of respondents agreed that their job was “very or extremely stressful,” and 25% of respondents said their job was “the number one stressor in their lives.” Going deeper, 34% admitted to difficulty sleeping due to workplace stress, and 29% said they had “yelled at co-workers because of workplace stress” in the past year.

In this article, I’m going to dig into what it means to be overworked, looking in particular at signs of being overworked in the workplace (overworked employees are at risk of exhaustion, burnout, and serious mental and physical issues), as well as how to reduce stress at work using seven easy techniques.

What is Overwork?

Overwork is defined as a state that occurs when an individual (or individuals) has worked too long or at too high an intensity for a certain length of time without a break. The feeling of being overworked typically manifests as feelings of tiredness, anxiety, or physical and emotional distress.

In most countries, hourly workers are paid “overtime” if they work for longer than their designated hours for the week (typically forty hours per week in the United States)—recognition that this work is on top of their defined work hours.

Negative Effects of Overwork

Overworked employees are at risk of exhaustion, burnout, and serious mental and physical deterioration, including but not limited to gaining or losing weight, a higher resting heart rate, and outsized aches and pains.

Whether because we believe our boss expects it of us, or we tell ourselves we need to “hustle” if we’re going to get anywhere in life, we’re all working harder and longer than we did in the past. While doing a certain amount of extra work comes with the territory of living in our always-on connected times, it’s important for us to recognize when our overwork (self-inflicted or not) begins to present a danger to ourselves and others.

While the key negative effects of overwork are both mental and physical, a key result of overworked and underpaid employees is a drop in their performance at work. This can take place both in the short term—overworked employees that work eight or more hours without a break will see a sharp drop in their productivity at hour eight compared to hour one—and in the long term—employees that work for a year or more without taking a day off (except for weekends and national holidays) will struggle to perform at the same level as an equally productive employee that schedules regular vacations.

Can You Die from Overwork?

Yes. In fact, the Japanese (Japan is the second-most overworked country in the world, after the United States) have a word for this. Karoshi, or “death by overwork,” refers to deaths that occur, often to otherwise healthy individuals, as a result of being overworked on the job.

While the cause of death in cases of karoshi are typically that of a heart attack or stroke due to stress and/or a lack of proper nutrition due to the individual eating less frequently, or eating a significant amount of fast food so to spend less time away from their job, the Japanese make clear that while a heart attack or stroke may have been the final nail in the coffin, overwork was the cause of death.

In The Power of Full Engagement, Tony Schwartz tells the story of Libby Zion, who died in 1984 after a visit to the emergency room in New York Hospital. A highly-publicized lawsuit followed, during which it was argued that Libby’s death could have been avoided had the residents and interns on duty that night been fully-slept. The conclusion of the trial cited that Libby has received “woefully inadequate” care from residents and interns that we operating on “little or no sleep.”

Libby Zion didn’t die from overwork. Instead, her death was caused by overworked hospital employees who were unable to offer her the care she needed. As a result of Libby’s case, New York State passed “New York State Department of Health Code, Section 405,” otherwise known as the Libby Zion Law, which limited the number of hours residents can work in New York State hospitals to approximately 80 hours per week.

Five Signs of Being Overworked

With all of this in mind, how do you know if you are being overworked? Here are five key signs of being overworked in the workplace. Look out for these signs in yourself and in your employees:

1) You Find it Difficult to Relax Outside of Work

If you consistency find yourself unable to ‘turn off’ from work in the evening, over the weekend, or when you’re on vacation, there’s a good chance that you’re suffering from overwork. If your job requires you to check your work email and pick up work-related phone calls during this time, this situation can be exacerbated.

2) Your Health is Beginning to Deteriorate

Have you lost or gained a noticeable amount of weight in the last year? Could this be caused by you eating less frequently, or eating an increasing amount of fast food? How about your resting heart rate or blood pressure—have they increased? If you’re a woman, have you missed any periods within the last few months? If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, there’s a good chance you are being overworked.

3) You Find it Difficult to Concentrate at Work

One of the easiest ways to spot overworked employees is by looking for those that are clearly finding it difficult to concentrate in meetings, at their desk, or during long phone calls. Have you spotted any of these behaviors in yourself? If you find yourself daydreaming or otherwise unable to pay attention at work, this is a high sign that you’re suffering from overwork.

4) You Frequently Feel Weak and Tired

How well do you sleep at night? This isn’t a moral question, but rather a way of understanding why you may be feeling weak and tired, both on and off the job. If you’re feeling tired at work, you’re likely not sleeping the recommended between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. With this said, make sure you don’t confuse tiredness for laziness; though if you are feeling lazy, this is easy to overcome.

5) You Feel Like There’s Not Enough Time in the Day

One of the most common complaints from overworked employees is a feeling that there isn’t enough time in the day to get all of their work done. This is potentially one of the most clear cut signs of being overworked, and it can be the result of you being required to attend a large number of meetings per week—meetings which take away from your productive work time—as well as you being saddled with extra work from your colleagues.

How to Reduce Stress at Work

So, if those were the signs of being overworked, how can you reduce stress at work so you no longer feel overworked and overwhelmed? Here is how to reduce stress at work using seven easy techniques:

1) Start Your Day with a Morning Routine

You know by now that morning routines are my thing. If I were to recommend just one tip to help you reduce stress at work, having a healthy and positive morning routine with which to start your day would be it. If possible, design your morning routine so it moves from your home to your workplace—for example, you meditate at home, hit the gym on the way to work, then pick up your favorite cup of coffee or tea and sit down at your desk ready to take on the world.

2) Be Honest with Yourself About Your Workload

We’re all taking on more work than ever, but that doesn’t mean it’s not up to us to figure out how to best manage this workload. One of the easiest ways to reduce stress at work is to be honest with ourselves and our colleagues about what work can be achieved in a certain timeframe; then going ahead and achieving it. Without this in place, we can make rash decisions in our prioritization, which can push more important projects back. In short, underpromise and overdeliver.

3) Avoid Workplace Conflict

This technique is self-explanatory. No good can come from getting involved in conflicts in the workplace. In fact, the American Institute of Stress (AIS) survey that I mentioned at the top of this article noted that 42% of respondents said that “yelling and other verbal abuse is common” in their workplace, and 10% said they “work in an atmosphere where physical violence has occurred because of job stress.” For your own sake, steer clear of all and any workplace conflict.

4) Keep a To-Do List, Avoid Multitasking

When you finish work each day, create a to-do list for the following day and place your most important work at the top—and aside from urgent events that genuinely can’t be helped, try to stick to it. Not only is having a to-do list and sticking to it the number one thing you can do to increase your overall focus and productivity, it will help you to reduce stress at work and feelings of being overworked over the long term.

5) Avoid Eating Lunch at Your Desk

In recent years it has become more and more common for employees to eat lunch at their desks—even though they’re not being asked to by their employers! While you may argue that eating lunch at your desk is an underlying expectation in your workplace, and not doing so would reflect badly on you, know that your overall performance reflects much more strongly on you than whether or not there are crumbs wedged between the keys on your computer keyboard at the end of the day. Get outside, eat lunch in the park, and see what some fresh air and time away from your desk in the middle of the day can do for your productivity.

6) Take a Nap

I’ll caveat this technique by saying that I know it isn’t available to all of us. If you do have the ability to take a short power nap in the middle of your work day, either because you work from home or at a workplace that has a dedicated nap room (or “pod”), this is a great way to melt away the stresses of your morning and prime yourself for the afternoon ahead. If you need help learning how to nap in increments as short as just ten or twenty minutes, read my article on how to nap. Whether you are able to nap during the middle of the day or not, remember that going to bed earlier and getting the recommended between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, as noted above, is always an option.

7) Leave Work at the Front Door

When you leave work for the day, or for a longer period of time in the case of weekends and vacations, leaving work at the front door is one of the most important things you can do to reduce stress at work. You work to live, you don’t live to work. While your work may hold your attention for eight or nine hours of the day, make sure that when you step through your front door your attention turns immediately the people behind that door—the people who you’re doing all of this for in the first place.

Feeling overworked in your job is not uncommon, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. When you learn how to reduce stress at work you can better manage your day-to-day and reduce feelings of tiredness, anxiety, and stress.

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Benjamin Spall

Benjamin Spall

Benjamin Spall is the co-author of My Morning Routine (Portfolio). He has written for outlets including the New York Times, New York Observer, Quartz, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, CNBC, and more.