Home Health Too Much Work Can Kill You!

Too Much Work Can Kill You!


Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

When God created Adam and Eve, He told them that they would be the caretakers of the Garden of Eden. In like manner, when we came into this world, we also have to work in order for us to live. I think there is no one in this world who doesn’t work – even the kings and queens.

Although it is not true to everyone, an average working week is some version of 8 am to 5 pm (with a one-hour break from 12 noon to 1 pm). Generally, people work from Monday to Friday – that’s 40 hours per week or 48 hours (if Saturday is included).

But there are people who overwork. These are people who work too hard, too much, or too long. A person is said to overwork if he or she works beyond his or her strength or capacity.

In 2015, the state-owned Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported that around 8.1 million Filipinos did the unthinkable: working for more than 48 hours in a week. This figure represents a 41% increase since 1995.

Compulsory and mandatory or forced overtime are the words used by employers to make their employees work more than what the law recommends, according to the Wikipedia. Not doing so would mean a job loss or other reprisals such as demotion or assignment to unattractive tasks or work shifts.

Voluntary overtime, as Wikipedia defines it, is “work which the employer may ask the employee to do but which the employee is not required to work unless he agrees at the time to do so.”

It is considered compulsory overwork when “the individual has no choice but to work more than his capacity.” In simpler terms, compulsory overwork “is the lack of control that workers exercise over the boundary between work time and private time.”

Whether compulsory or mandatory, some recent studies have shown the costs of this overwork. “Several studies have shown that excessive work hours could trigger serious health problems and even cause death,” said Senator Grace Poe, who raised the concern after the PSA’s report, Decent Work in the Philippines. “Chronic overworking, as various research suggest, can lead to threatening levels of stress.”

In a statement, Poe said that if the problem would not be addressed immediately, more Filipinos “may be working their way into an early grave.” Or, as if echoing a line from a very popular song, “Too much work will kill you.”

American singer Billy Joel was on to something. As he pointed out in Movin’ Out, working too hard really can give you a “heart attack-ack-ack…” But more than that, stroke may be an even bigger problem than a heart attack in people who are overworked.

A study conducted by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research and published in the journal Stroke showed that “people who work an average of one 10-hour day a week increases a stroke risk by nearly a third.”

“Researchers looking at the impact of working cultures on cardiovascular health found that people who said they worked 10 hours or more for at least 50 days a year were around 29% more likely to have a stroke,” wrote Alex Matthews-King in The Independent report.

“Those who worked long hours chronically, over a period of 10 years or more, were even more at risk, with a 45% higher chance of having a stroke,” he added. Surprisingly, stroke risk was “most pronounced” in younger workers under the age of 50.

On the other hand, researchers from University College London found that 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.

“The elevated risk of heart attack with longer work hours was only seen in workers with low socioeconomic status,” observed Dr. John Ross, contributing editor of Harvard Health Blog. “The heart attack risk in high wage workers who worked long hours was similar to that of high wage workers who had normal work hours. Stroke risk was higher in all those who worked long hours, regardless of their socioeconomic status.”

Vaibhav Joshi, a feature writer of Entrepreneur, wrote that working long hours may likely have an impact on mental health, citing a study published in PLoS One. The study showed that people who regularly work more than 11-hour days more than double their chances of major depression as compared to employees who typically work about eight hours a day.

“Long working hours are likely to be related to less time to relax and less sleep,” said Dr. Marianna Virtanen, a study researcher from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki. “It is also possible that excessive working hours result in problems with close relationships, which in turn, may trigger depression.”

The website healthline.com states that being overworked can mean many people forget (or simply don’t have time to) properly eat or drink. This problem could lead to hypoglycemia and dehydration. “The immediate consequences from this trend may seem small, only causing hunger pans and cracked lips,” research writer Katherine Meikle contends, “but once they progress, severe cases may mean coma and death.”

Overwork is very much common in Asia. In China, it’s called guolaosi, while South Korea has a name for it: gwarosa. In Japan, the problem of overwork has become so severe that the term “karoshi” – literally means “death by overwork” – came into existence. Estimates from the Japanese government health officials showed 200 people die from karoshi annually because of heart attacks or cerebral hemorrhages due to long hours spent at the workplace.

Overwork was believed to the reason for the fatal stroke of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in 2000. The most recent case, however, was that of Miwa Sado, which Jenny Darmody reported in the Silicon Republic. A 31-year-old employee of Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, she logged 159 hours of overtime and only took two days off in the month leading up to her untimely death.

In 2016, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported the case of a Filipino trainee in Japan who died of karoshi. Quoting Asahi Shimbun, it said: “The Gifu Labor Standard Inspection Office of the Japan Labor Ministry disclosed that Joey Tocnang, a 27-year-old trainee of casting company logged in 78.5 to 122.5 hours of overtime per month before his death. He died of heart failure inside his dorm, just three months short of his return to the Philippines.”

Contrary to common belief, “overworked employees are also not necessarily more productive because of their longer hours,” wrote JC Punongbayan of the University of the Philippines School of Economics in a feature published by Rappler. In other words, the longer a person works, the lesser is his productivity.

Some experts use the word “workaholic” to people who are addicted to work. Although it implies the person is enjoying his work, it can also imply that he simply feels compelled to do it.

One such workaholic person is Kilroy J. Oldster. In Dead Toad Scrolls, he wrote: “People frequently ask me why I work so hard – prolong hours, infrequent vacations, and never calling in sick or missing work for any other reason. The short answer is that work is indivisible from life itself.”

To some, being a workaholic is good, but to most, it isn’t. “The incessant work-related activity masks anxiety, low self-esteem, and intimacy problems,” Wikipedia points out. “And as addictions to alcohol, drugs or gambling, workaholics’ denial and destructive behavior will persist despite feedback from loved ones or danger signs such as deteriorating relationships. Poor health is another warning sign.”

Some workaholics, though, know it but can’t get out from it. “For years, I worked seven-days weeks, through birthdays and most public holidays, Christmases and New Year’s Eves included,” wrote Antonella Gambotto-Burke in Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love. “I worked mornings and afternoons, resuming work after dinner. I remember feeling as if life were a protracted exercise in pulling myself out of a well by a rope, and that rope was work.”

The best possible solution: take a break and rest. Take it from Maya Angelou, author of Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now: “Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”

Rest and work go hand in hand – like cart and carriage. Listen to the words of Elisabeth Elliot, the woman behind Discipline: The Glad Surrender: “Work is a blessing. God has so arranged the world that work is necessary, and He gives us hands and strength to do it. The enjoyment of leisure would be nothing if we had only leisure. It is the joy of work well done that enables us to enjoy rest, just as it is the experience of hunger and thirst that make food and drink such pleasures.”

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