Posts Tagged ‘Overworked’
Being regularly overworked and stressed out likely leads to health problems long-term, but feeling bored or having too much time on your hands can also have negative effects, a government-sponsored study from Germany on health and safety issues in the workplace concluded.
Unlike here in the United States, labor laws in many European countries, including Germany, impose strict limits on how much time people can spend at work. 35-, 32- or even 30-hours workweeks are not uncommon, and month-long annual vacations are mandatory in some states. Yet it is not altogether clear whether a lighter workload and more free time automatically lead to greater quality of life.
Boredom and monotony produce their own kind of stress, which can be just as harmful as exhaustion from work overload. A study by the National Institute of Health (NIH) found that uninspiring occupations can elicit considerable stress, especially when coupled with a need for high alertness, e.g. in security and surveillance jobs.
Like unemployment, underemployment or part-time work can cause stress, and not just because of financial concerns. Not having enough structure in one’s life, or feeling left out in terms of work-related opportunities can lead to loss of self-esteem, anxiety, and depression, according to a report by the American Psychological Association (APA).
So, is there such a thing as a healthy middle when it comes to stress at work?
Most people who work between 35 and 40 hours a week don’t experience significant health damages related to stress, said Dr. Monika A. Rieger, a professor of medicine at the University of Tübingen, Germany, and an expert in work-related health matters who was not involved in her country’s government study, to the German news magazine “Der Spiegel.” However, consistently laboring beyond 40 hours can potentially lead to health problems. It seems that those who work harder are also more vulnerable to disease, she added.
Still, experts agree that there is such a thing as “good stress.” Especially when work involves variety and creativity, it can be a rewarding experience. The more control people can exercise over their activities, and the more they benefit from the results, the more likely they will enjoy what they are doing, even if it entails a lot of personal effort.
There is indeed a kind of stress that is good for you, one that makes you excited and let’s you push harder. But even stress that is motivating and enhances performance can cause harm if it’s not kept in check, according to Elizabeth A. Scott, a wellness coach specializing in stress management who wrote extensively about the subject.
For instance, workaholics may pride themselves in getting lots of work done, but that doesn’t mean their behavior is healthy. Good stress can turn into bad stress, especially when it develops into chronic stress that offers no reprieve. That’s the kind of stress we really have to worry about, says Scott.
So while there is no precise measure by which we can determine when work-related stress becomes damaging, it is clear that there is a limit of what is tolerable. To keep workers from reaching that, it is important for companies to add as much quality to their workplaces as possible – for example by allowing their staff to take frequent breaks, do a variety of different tasks, partake in wellness programs, etc. After all, a work environment where people thrive instead of suffer is in everyone’s best interest.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).
Whenever I make phone calls or send off e-mails to family members and friends to touch base and inquire about their well-being, the answers are almost always the same: “busy,” “crazy busy,” “insanely busy,” “busy, busy, busy.” I know full well that I’m expected to respond with something like “that’s good,” or “that’s a good problem to have.” Being able to say that there is plenty going on in our lives, even if it drives us nuts, is almost considered an asset in our culture, although it’s made to sound more like a burden.
The holiday season may be an especially challenging time when we try to get many extra chores squared away in addition to our already overloaded schedules. But, let’s face it, being swamped with work and activities has become a way of life for many of us all year round. It is so much part of us, it would be hard to get off the treadmill, even if we tried.
“Without intending for it to happen or knowing how it got started, many people now find that they live in a rush they don’t want and didn’t create, or at least didn’t mean to create,” says Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and author of “Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life” (Ballantine Books, 2006).
While being active and engaged can be a positive experience, losing sight of what we want and what’s important to us should not be the outcome. “Being too busy […] can become a habit so entrenched that it leads you to postpone or cut short what really matters to you, making you a slave to a lifestyle you don’t like but can’t escape,” says Dr. Hallowell.
Much of today’s hurry, bustle and agitation has been created, or at least accelerated, by the arrival of communication technologies allowing us to stay connected with the outside world at all times. We have even adopted a term that originated in the computer industry to describe our responses to our many pressing demands: “multitasking,” says Christine Rosen, editor at The New Atlantis who writes about the social and cultural impact of technology. “Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshalling the power of as many technologies as possible,” she says.
In recent years, scientists have begun to pay more attention to potentially adverse effects of the multitasking phenomenon on people’s health, not only in terms of stress management but also with regards to mental health. When neurologists studied brain functions through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, they were able to observe the inner workings of multitasking as blood flowed to different brain regions whenever test participants shifted their focus. Multitasking, or task-switching, as the process is sometimes called, requires time and energy, and if too much of it is required at any given time, a “bottleneck” effect may occur while the brain struggles to respond simultaneously to several stimuli, according to research conducted by Dr. René Marois, professor at the Department of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. The reason is that the human brain can only focus sequentially, not simultaneously, on different tasks at hand. It must disengage from one before engaging in another. This limits it to a finite amount of goals it can pursue before its capacity maxes out.
“For example, someone who is writing a report might be able to take on a second task, like checking e-mail, without losing their train of thought. But if that e-mail asked for a decision about something, that would amount to a third task, and the brain would be overwhelmed,” he said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) about his findings.
Yet, many of us, especially when we are good at it, take pride in our ability to get lots of stuff done within a short period of time, and find it very rewarding. The question is, at what price?
Besides giving us toxic stress, making us sick, causing accidents and errors and turning us into rude and irritable people, the greatest damage from being too busy is that it prevents us from controlling our own lives,” says Dr. Hallowell.
Chronically overworked and overtired, we often don’t have enough energy left for doing the things we really want, such as spending more quality time alone or with loved ones. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can question our behavior from time to time in terms of what we want to achieve and how important our goals really are to us. The holiday season can be a good opportunity to re-examine our priorities.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “A Season to Slow Down.”
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.
Americans used to take time off and kick back during the summer months. Not so any more. In bad economic times, many people are too afraid to leave the workplace for a few weeks or even just a few days.
Those who already feel apprehensive about their job security don’t want to take any unnecessary chances. Especially when many businesses undergo downsizing or restructuring, employees are extremely hesitant to leave work behind. For some, it can be more stressful to be absent from the office than to stay put. “People are worried that a temporary vacation could lead to permanent time off,” wrote Cindy Goodman, a business columnist at the Miami Herald. “The people who still have a job are really feeling overwhelmed and overworked. But they’re afraid to take vacations […] at a time when they need them more than ever.”
Not all employees actually believe they would be fired for using their hard-earned vacation time. But many do fear that the company could come to consider their position as redundant, that co-workers could sabotage their projects or take otherwise advantage of their absence, or that important decisions could be made without their knowledge and input, among other concerns.
Many older workers still think of vacations as a luxury that does not sit well with their conservative work ethic. There is a long-held belief that working harder than anyone else is what has made America great. And then, of course, there are the hard-charging, never-tiring, always-doing-what-it-takes workaholics who think that taking breaks is only for sissies. “Forfeiting vacations can be a ‘macho thing,’ said Mitchell Lee Marks, a psychologist, management consultant and president of JoiningForces.org, a consulting firm in San Francisco.
Today, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not have labor laws that include minimum leave. The European Union, for example, requires that all workers take a minimum of four weeks vacation time every year. Many member states exceed that mandate. Those numbers are unfathomable for most Americans.
Expedia.com, a travel reservation company, conducted a survey that compared the vacation habits of citizens around the world. According to this research, 34 percent of Americans don’t take the full vacation time they earn each year. By contrast, only 22 percent of French and 24 percent of German workers don’t use up their allotted time. Only the Japanese vacation less than we do – just 8 percent take off every day they’re owed.
There are multiple reasons why Americans are less inclined to enjoy their holidays. “In countries where vacation time is mandated by law, it’s not something that people think about in terms of their relationship with their employer,” said Jennifer Schramm, a manager at the Society for Human Resource Management, an organization that serves human resources professionals. “In the U.S., our vacation allotment is part of the employment relationship. Given that our paid leave is closely tied to our relationship to our employer, our willingness to take advantage of it is likelier to change in response to external factors, especially the economy or the job market,” she added.
That doesn’t mean that workers here would not like more paid time off than they are getting from their jobs – if they get any at all. Survey after survey has shown that Americans are dying to have more quality time for themselves and their families, even if it would mean a cut in pay.
Still, “sacrificing your vacation won’t necessarily save your job,” said Joe Robinson, author of “Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life,” who is also an advocate for a federal paid-leave law. “I talked to a woman who worked at a company for 25 years and had five or six weeks of paid leave. She only used three, four or five days a year – and she got laid off like everyone else. This does not insulate you from layoffs. It does leave you wondering why you gave up your life,” said Robinson.
Even those who dare to venture off once in a while don’t always know how to separate themselves entirely from their work place. Many workers find it unthinkable to leave their laptops and smart phones permanently switched off during vacations. “Because of modern technology, it has become almost impossible to completely disengage ourselves from the office,” said Daniel H. Pink, author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” “The border between what is work and what is personal is more porous than ever. Whereas the transition from working to going on vacation used to be like an on-off switch, it’s now more of a dimmer switch.”
Not everyone thinks that “working vacations” are a good idea. “Workers who don’t take vacations hurt themselves and their companies,” said Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author of “The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World.” “Overworked employees get sick more often and place themselves at risk for long-term illnesses, such as heart disease. Companies suffer because their employees are too tired or ill to be productive.”
Today, many companies understand better the importance of a health-promoting work environment and establish their policies accordingly. But often it is easier to make structural changes than to overcome the habits of individuals. If people don’t know how to silence their inner taskmaster once in a while, encouraging flexibility and offering more options won’t be enough. For many, it’s a cultural issue, or perhaps it’s generational, according to Dan Ryan, head of a business consulting firm in Nashville, Tennessee. “I’m a baby boomer… and I’m accustomed to working. My kids have a different perspective. They’re more likely to take a vacation,” he said. Well, as they say, you can teach even an old dog new tricks.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun™,” which is available on her blog http://www.timigustafson.com and at amazon.com. Her latest book, “Kids Love Healthy Foods™” is now available in e-book format, also at www.amazon.com