Overwork is bad for you — and your company

Overwork is bad for you

I’m fully of the belief that 55 hours of work/week is a hard ceiling, but I also know a ton of people I’ve worked with over my life who run around screaming about headcount, bandwith, and deliverables with their hair ablaze — all the while telling anyone that will listen that they worked 82 hours last week — so I kind of gave up on trying to figure out where the truth really lies. It’s hard to argue with the idea that “being busy” is actually a function of your choices about what to prioritize (work vs. personal), so complaining about being busy is a little bit like complaining about being fat as you gorge yourself on bar nachos. That’s your deal, bro. If you want to be less busy, prioritize the right work and the right things and set a hard cut-off time for yourself. It’s honestly not rocket science.

What’s funny about the whole “Temple of Busy” discussion is that there’s documented research about the perils of overwork. Interestingly, then, “overwork” is like a micro-version of climate change. Even though we’ve got a ton of research, everyone’s finding a way to ignore it. Here’s some golden stuff:

Considerable evidence shows that overwork is not just neutral — it hurts us and the companies we work for. Numerous studies by Marianna Virtanen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and her colleagues (as well as other studies) have found that overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease. Of course, those are bad on their own. But they’re also terrible for a company’s bottom line, showing up as absenteeism, turnover, and rising health insurance costs. Even the Scroogiest of employers, who cared nothing for his employees’ well-being, should find strong evidence here that there are real, balance-sheet costs incurred when employees log crazy hours.

I like that series of stats because it has a bottom-line resonance; most people don’t care about anything in a work context unless there’s a bottom line aspect to chase. Phrased another way, that’s why the concept of “talent strategy” is a complete and utter joke.

Here’s another good one:

If your job relies on interpersonal communication, making judgment calls, reading other people’s faces, or managing your own emotional reactions — pretty much all things that the modern office requires — I have more bad news. Researchers have found that overwork (and its accompanying stress and exhaustion) can make all of these things more difficult.

Jesus H. Christ. That paragraph describes what a job is, essentially — and all of it is affected by overwork.

This is maybe my favorite, though:

Work too hard and you also lose sight of the bigger picture. Research has suggested that as we burn out, we have a greater tendency to get lost in the weeds.

You think? You ever had a job where a division director/C-Suite person/VP is line-editing press releases or tweets? I saw that happen at ESPN. ESPN basically prints money, so you’d assume it’s a functional place top-to-bottom, right? Not in the least. It has some super intelligent people, sure, but it also has some Peter Principle and some lifers running areas. They grind hard because they love sports and/or want to worship at The Temple of Busy, and in the process, they lose sight of the bigger picture.

If you line up 100 people you work with — assuming you work with that many — and you rank them 1 to 100 on “Most Hair On Fire In Any Given Situation,” here’s the interesting thing you’ll find: the people who run around like everything is a total mess all the time (burned out, overworked) are almost always the people chasing minute details instead of the big picture. Now, now… I agree with one thing here: the devil is in the details. But someone needs to be minding the Big Picture Store, too.

And now, a final research blow:

This is something business first learned a long time ago. In the 19th century, when organized labor first compelled factory owners to limit workdays to 10 (and then eight) hours, management was surprised to discover that output actually increased – and that expensive mistakes and accidents decreased. This is an experiment that Harvard Business School’s Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter repeated over a century later with knowledge workers. It still held true. Predictable, required time off (like nights and weekends) actually made teams of consultants more productive.

I’m sure about 14 total people will ever read this post — welcome to the content marketing/blogging supply-demand problem, baby! — but for those that do, take this one to the bank: overwork is legitimately bad for you, and bad for your bottom line.

Maybe you should take a walk instead.




Ted Bauer


  1. Hear, hear! I find that the most overworked people I know are usually the most disorganized as well. They run around putting out fires that they created, or have injected themselves into. My motto? Plan the work, work the plan.

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