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What Happens to Your Body When You Have a Busy Job, Says Science

Here's why logging really long work weeks is all but guaranteed to come back to haunt you.
FACT CHECKED BY William Mayle
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Recently, a group of angry junior bankers at Goldman Sachs caused a stir by bringing to light just how much they're working. They described their working hours as "inhumane," and noted that—though company's official work-week rules state otherwise—they're more often than not expected to log seven-day work weeks that run longer than 100 hours. Now, whether or not you have any sympathy whatsoever for junior workers at Wall Street's top investment bank, they're not the only workaholics who live among us, and there's plenty of research that shows why working too hard is bad for your body.

"There is now a mountain of careful research showing that people who experience long hours of work have serious health consequences," John Pencavel, Ph.D, a professor emeritus of economics at Stanford and author of Diminishing Returns at Work: The Consequences of Long Working Hours, explained to The New York Times.

Most recently, a new report from the World Health Organization says that our grueling workdays are responsible for killing 745,000 people every year.

For what it's worth, studies also show that overworked employees aren't great for business, either. In fact, one notable study makes a strong case that productivity essentially plummets—and any further work is a waste of time—after working for just 64 hours per week.

If you're finding that you're at your desk when the sun rises and sets, know that you may not be doing your body—or your company—any favors. Curious to know what being a workaholic does to your body? Read on. And for more on the science of productivity, make sure you're aware of The Secret Reason Why You Never Get Anything Done, Say Psychologists.

1

You Put Your Heart at Risk

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One study from researchers at University College London found that people who overwork have a higher risk of developing heart strokes and type 2 diabetes due to stress, unhealthy eating habits, and sedentary lifestyle. Specifically, those who worked more than 55 hours per week had a 13% greater risk of a heart attack, and were 33% more likely to suffer a stroke, compared with those who worked 35-40 hours per week.

According to an INTERHEART study, work-related stress was associated with a twice as high risk of coronary heart disease—an increase on par with such high-stress experiences as divorce or the death of a loved on. Job strain—in which a worker faces high demands but feels unable to meet them—is associated with a 23% increase in the risk of coronary heart disease according to an article published in The Lancet. And for more on the science of your body, don't miss What Happens to Your Body When You Have Sex, According to Science.

2

You Develop Chronic Back and Neck Pain

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You don't have to be doing back-breaking labor to suffer from back and neck pain at the end of a long day at work. A September 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that working for long periods at home, where there is often a lack absence of ergonomic office furniture, "may impede the adoption of a healthy posture and may promote the onset of musculoskeletal (MSK) disorders." The researchers also observed that "working in a sedentary position for prolonged periods increases the risk of neck pain and/or low back pain."

"I'm a physical therapist and have noticed a significant increase in people complaining of back, neck, arm, and hip pain since working increased hours from home," says Marin L. Campbell, a physical therapist at Thrive Physical Therapy & Myofascial Release. "Reasons for this include poor ergonomic set-up (e.g., sitting on couch or in armchair or working from laptop versus desktop with screen at a suboptimal height for proper neck posture), sitting in the same position during working hours and after work while watching TV, and spending increased time looking down at a mobile device during work hours."

It's not just those working from home who suffer back pain as a result of a crazy busy job. To take a couple recent examples, a metanalysis of Nigerian health-care workers found that working long hours led to back pain and headaches in almost 75% of the subjects, while a study of Korean wage workers found "long working hours were associated with musculoskeletal symptoms."

Additionally, a study in the Occupational & Environmental Medicine journal found that the longer people worked, the more likely they were to experience back pain. So if your back is aching, you might want to rethink how much work you are doing. If you're suffering from neck and back pain, don't miss the One Simple Sleep Trick That Can Change Your Life, Say Doctors.

3

Your Exercise Vanishes

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When a project gets intense, many workaholics have a tendency to deprioritize most other aspects of their lives, including their exercise regimen. The restriction of gym access and remote-working lifestyle many have shifted to during the pandemic has not helped.

For example, a January 2021 study in the Journal of Occupational Health found that those working from home took part in far less physical activity than those who went into workplaces. Specifically, those who worked from home only engaged in an average of 55.6 minutes of light physical activity compared to an average of 122.9 minutes of activity by those going into a workplace.

"I have heard from patients that they are having a harder time setting boundaries around how many hours are spent on work with people saying that they are working increased hours with less time for physical activity if they have deadlines or stressful projects," says Campbell.

4

You Fill Your Body with Greasy Foods and Gain Weight

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Just as working excessively can lead individuals to focus less on getting the exercise their body needs, it can also cause people to put less effort into maintaining a healthy diet. According to Jessi Holden, RD, a nutritionist at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, overworking can have a negative impact on someone's nutrition status for a number of reasons.

"The individual who is overworking may not have access to or take enough breaks to have access to balanced meals and snacks throughout the day. This leads many individuals to skimp on food throughout the day and eat everything they can when they finally get home at night," she says. "Being overworked or very busy working long hours can also squelch natural cues for hunger and when we feel out of touch with our hunger, it can be very easy to be under nourished."

Ashley Nicole, an endocrinology practitioner and health coach, echoes these points, adding that the food individuals tend to eat on-the-go are often selected for their convenience, not their health benefits. "The wrong foods can actually cause inflammation and irritation to the underlying etiology of your disease," she adds.

One study published in the International Journal of Obesity last year found that long work hours were associated with an increased risk of shifting from normal weight to overweight.

5

Your Stress Turns to Depression

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Some of the most dramatic health effects that have been found to correlate with working long hours are those affecting one's mental well-being. A 2020 study published in PLOS One has shown that working between 41 and 60 a week compared to working 31 to 40 hours a week increased the risk of stress, depression, and suicidal ideation.

"Overworking increases stress which increases the release of the stress hormone, cortisol," explains Leann Piston, MD, a medical consultant for Invigor Medical. "Cortisol affects sleep quality and dietary habits. It becomes a vicious cycle of working more, more stress, decreased sleep, fatigue, and weight gain. Fatigue makes it hard to work productively which means longer hours to accomplish the same tasks."

A recent study published in the journal Annales Médico-psychologiques found that mental disruptions caused by overworking and an improper balance of coping includes interpersonal sensitivity, depression, anxiety and potentially somatization.

"Looking at nursing specifically over the past year, the same study found that the prevalence of psychological problems or tensions were over twice as high as is seen within the general population due to being overworked," points out Amber Dessellier, Ph.D., MPH, CHES, a faculty member for Walden University's Doctor of Public Health and PhD in Public Health programs. "Similar statistics have been found with other professions such as teaching and senior leadership roles, with symptoms ranging from sleep disruptions or disorders to varying degrees of psychological distress."

To take another profession known for its intense demands, Parks points out that lawyers, who work an average of 53 hours per week, according to a Bloomberg Law, tend to rank higher for rates of depression, sleep deprivation, anxiety, substance abuse and other health concerns than other professions.

6

Your Liver Takes a Hit

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Whether as an attempt to relieve stress or rooted in a work-hard-play-hard attitude, those who spend more of their week working also tend to throw back more booze. According to a meta-analysis from the British Medical Journal, one reason for the increased prevalence in depression among workaholics is increased use of alcohol. The study doh d that those who work long hours are up to 20% more likely to use alcohol than those who don't.

"Workers who work more than 48 hours per week are 13% more likely to abuse alcohol," says Evan Parks, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. "When women are drinking more than 14 drinks per week and men 21 drinks per week, there is a clear risk of mental health problems, liver diseases, cancer, stroke, and heart disease."

7

Your Sleep Quality Plummets

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"Long working hours contribute to exhaustion, stress and depression that collectively disturb your sleep," says O'Brien, pointing to a 2019 study in the journal Sleep Health. "Due to the lack of sleep, you become more susceptible to get sick. Moreover, lack of sleep is also associated with great cognitive interference, reported by research." And for more ways you can live a healthier life, see here for The Secret Exercise Tricks for Keeping Your Weight Down for Good.

Alex Daniel
A journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Read more