The body is a beautiful machine. All those parts and systems working in concert, every second of every day, everything humming along in the background … until it doesn’t. Then problems crop up in the form of aches and pains, minor malfunctions, and sometimes not so minor ones, like life-altering disease.
Though a lot of the erosion can be racked up to simple wear and tear and the inevitable effects of time marching on, plenty of it is being accelerated by a lifestyle loaded with bad habits. Among the worst of them? The modern-day affliction of ‘working yourself sick.’ It attacks you on all fronts — physically, psychologically, spiritually — and can cut years off your life.
For some, working at all hours and never allowing for down time is almost an addiction, a workaholic badge of honor. For others, it seems like a necessary evil, endured in hopes of cementing one’s place in the company or holding on to steady employment in difficult times.
Whatever the motivation, being perpetually on call and on duty is keeping us in a 24/7 state of high alert, exhausting mind and body, draining creativity, thwarting productivity, and setting us up for a major health tumble. A recent five-year study in Britain found working long hours to be a significant risk factor for development of depressive and anxiety symptoms, while another found that working too much — say 50 or more hours a week — can have a profoundly negative impact on longevity. So, yes, over-work is very serious business and the time to quit it — the habit, not necessarily the job—is now.
So what to do to tame the ‘always-on’ beast and start reclaiming your health and life? First, admit that you may have a problem, take the tips below to heart, and focus on living better longer by working yourself well.
Over-work is not a badge of honor — it’s a killer.
Every day, new patients arrive at my office, exhausted, burnt out, plagued by GI problems, physically and emotionally at the end of their rope. Though every patient is different and the road to wellness is an individual one, often there are a few common threads: many of them are working too hard. They’re putting in 70+ hours a week at demanding jobs, they’re not eating very well, they’re barely moving during the day, they’re winding down with two or three glasses of wine at night and, yes, they’re seriously under-slept. Oh, and they never take vacations. Sound familiar? Taken together or in any combination, these bad habits can, over time, set the table for chronic illness like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer, and even sudden death, not to mention swiftly-wasting muscles and a body that’s aging rapidly before its time. Hardly what the doctor ordered! What’s the solution? The first, easiest, and most pleasurable one is to book some vacation time. Be it far away or close to home, just book it. (Then, when you return, start working on addressing the eating, sleeping, movement, and drinking issues!)
Get out of town to help save your life.
If you pride yourself on never using up your vacation days and can’t (or won’t) tear yourself away from the office, understand that vacation-free living can actually raise your risk of death. A nine-year study found that vacations helped cut the overall risk of death by roughly 20 percent, and the risk of death from heart disease by as much as 30 percent. And results from the 20-year Framingham Heart Study were more startling — women who took the least amount of vacation time were roughly eight times more likely to have a heart attack than their vacationing sisterhood. Something to keep in mind the next time you’re debating whether or not to get out of town. The general thinking is that vacations, even if they’re brief, provide much-needed stress reduction benefits which help tame the inflammation that fans the development of an assortment of chronic diseases. So start thinking of vacation time as mandatory and well-earned, no matter how demanding your boss may be. But remaining electronically chained to the office while on vacation is not much better than not leaving town at all. According to another decade-long study, researchers found that terminally-tethered types reaped few of the stress-relieving, restorative benefits that vacation time confers, and were far more prone to problems with burnout.
Less balance means more sniffles, sleeplessness, and anxiety.
Sure, the average office in wintertime offers up a virtual cavalcade of bugs that are hard to avoid. But if you’re catching every one that blows through, it may be because all that overworking, under-sleeping, poor eating, and relentless stress is doing a number on your immune system. As well, steadily-climbing weight and blood pressure numbers are canary-in-a-coal-mine warning signs. Sleep problems, anxiety, irritability, and mood disorders are just a few more ways your body’s telling you that it’s time to rethink the oversized role work is playing in your life. Your mission: to achieve a modicum of balance, or at least one that’s better than what you’re currently working with. Start by putting stress reduction, clean eating, movement, and more sleep to the top of your agenda, and move work down a few rungs on the list.
Put yourself in work rehab.
Breaking the cycle of workaholism is not without its challenges. But remember, while loyalty is a desirable and admirable attribute, in today’s workplace it rarely works both ways. Your parents may have expected lifetime employment if they sacrificed themselves for the company, but compromising your health for the sake of the company won’t save you from layoffs — it will only make you sicker when and if they come to pass.
So, your mission is to put some space between your life and your job using a few of the ideas below to start rehabbing your relationship with work.
1. Cut and run. As in cut the number of hours in your work days and move more — be it a run, slow jog, power walk, a walk after dinner, or any activity that helps strengthen the heart muscle and overall health. And, while you’re at it, don’t forget to move more throughout the day too! A recent meta-analysis suggested that 50-hour work weeks or days of 10 hours or more were associated with roughly a 40 percent increase in coronary heart disease, due in part to the lack of movement and sleep corner-cutting that often go hand-in-hand with overwork.
2. Redefine the idea of vacation. Vacations can be as short as one or two days — or, even just an hour or two if that’s all the time you’ve got. Almost any amount of vacation will confer benefits, though ideally, the longer, the better. The idea is to think of ‘vacation’ as the regular, mandatory time you make to rejuvenate yourself: your self-care time. One way to ‘vacate’ quickly? Do a half-hour lunchtime meditation at a meditation center near your office, pop into a local church to sit quietly, or visit a local wellness center ‘nap pod’ for a few revitalizing winks. One patient of mine, who initially found it all but impossible to take vacation, started by taking lunchtime meditation mini-breaks, then worked his way up to taking off alternating Fridays in the summer. From there, he committed to one long weekend vacation a month, and by next year, he’s planning to go off the grid for an entire week!
3. Rethink your productivity. Figure out how to work smarter, not harder, more efficiently, not longer. Look at every task you need to accomplish in the average week and figure out how to offload, delegate, automate, and outsource as much as possible to buy back some of the time you need to get out of the office sooner, and get your life back in balance.
4. Make your day’s end and weekends an actual end. One of my patients makes her weekends a no-work zone and forces herself to unplug by turning on her out-of-office notification every Friday at 6 p.m. On weekdays, the out-of-office goes on automatically at 6 p.m. and off at 8 a.m. During the week, get into the habit of keeping your responses between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. unless there is a true emergency.
5. Make plans. Social engagement, personal relationships, and connection with loved ones is essential to mental health and longevity, so make plans — and keep them. Even if you can only manage one live, face-to-face engagement a week with a partner, friend, or even the kids (let’s hope it hasn’t come to that!), interacting, connecting, laughing, and blowing off steam with those you hold dear are excellent, enjoyable ways to release the pressure valve, boost mood, reduce anxiety, and, as reported in The New York Times, reduce the health-impairing effects of loneliness and isolation.
Last but not least, rest more, relax more, have fun, and enjoy your down time!