Why Overwork Doesn’t Work

Are you overworked? Do you believe there is no such thing? It’s reasonable, as a manager, to expect your team to be dedicated to their jobs. After all, it takes a lot of effort to build a company up and set it apart from your competition. Long hours go hand-in-hand with success, and you lead by example. Right?

But when do words like “dedication” and “loyalty” become code for overwork? When does pushing your team become punishing them? And at what point do the long hours become unproductive because everyone just wants to go home?

The lines separating our work and personal lives have become increasingly blurred in recent years. The U.S. economic crisis of 2008 threw many people out of work on both sides of the border, and many of those who kept their jobs made compromises they likely regret. Maybe that meant longer hours at the office or always being available by phone or email. For many of us, our identities have become inextricably linked to our jobs, to the point where the first thing we do upon waking is not to kiss our spouse but check our phone for messages from the boss. We may even brag about how many hours we work, as though working 80 hours a week is some measure of achievement or self-worth. Even prior to 2008, the combined weekly hours worked by Canadian couples had risen, from 57.6 in 1976 to 64.8 in 2008, evidence that overwork in Canada is not a new issue.

What is the Cost of Overwork?

For employees, the consequences of overwork are physical, mental, and emotional. The stress of doing too much can lead to headaches, hair loss, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal disorders, insomnia, and compromised immune systems. That means more sick days and decreased productivity, putting them at risk for burnout, as well as mental health issues like depression, and anxiety.

At its most extreme, overwork can kill. The Japanese even have a word for it, karoshi, which translates as “death by overwork”. The Washington Post reported 189 such deaths in Japan in 2015, with the CBC reporting 190 in 2017.

How Does Overwork Impact Business?

There is an apparent logic to the notion that more hours worked means more work completed; that an employee will accomplish twice as much working 80 hours a week than they would 40. But the reality is that productivity has a peak, and it’s around 50 hours per week. For employees working more than 70 hours a week, studies have shown that their work beyond 55 hours is virtually worthless. Instead, the “benefits” of all that (often unpaid) work by so-called “work martyrs” are absenteeism, higher staff turnover, workplace accidents (due to a lack of focus or concentration), and strained workplace relationships as increasingly frazzled coworkers blame each other for mistakes. Regardless of the industry, an exhausted employee is never doing their best work.

In terms of finances, there’s more than just lost productivity from a burned-out staff. There’s also the additional costs of supervision and a strain on medical benefits as exhausted employees need medication, or even anti-depressants – that is if they’re not already self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.

What Can Be Done?

Beverly Beuermann-King (photo via worksmartlivesmart.com)

Ontario-based work-life balance expert Beverly Beuermann-King suggests companies rethink their belief that working harder means working better.

“People are healthier [when they’re not overworked], and so they’re more engaged,” she explains. “They end up putting in the effort that is required and not just being present in body but not in spirit. We see where that has a healthy ripple out to family life and to the community as well. When people are engaged and happy at work, they have more energy to look after their families. Children are taken care of better; they’re happier in school. And out in communities, people volunteer. They take care of each other; they’re connected more.”

Who is Responsible?

Beuermann-King thinks government legislation limiting overwork should be combined with healthy corporate culture if attitudes towards overwork are to be changed.

“It’s everybody’s responsibility,” she says. “As a corporation as a whole it is their responsibility to make sure they are not seeing people as a disposable commodity, that they are helping them to be engaged and looking at ways to make them be as healthy as they can be. And then it is government’s responsibility to take care of those [companies] who are not doing their fair share and taking on that responsibility for those companies and leaders that are abusing their power over individuals who are too vulnerable to speak up.”

It’s “critical” for managers to set an example of realistic, healthy work hours, says Beuermann-King. Employees should feel comfortable leaving the office after a sensible number of hours in the office.

“It’s that whole thing of ‘do as I say, not as I do’,” she explains. “If [as a manager] you are working through your lunch and not taking your breaks and sending messages at 3 in the morning, and shout[ing], screaming and stomping, it’s going to speak volumes to your employees.”

As in many things in business, positive change when it comes to a culture of overwork starts at the top, with leadership. According to Beuermann-King, “it’s their responsibility to make sure they are being positive role models.”


Sean Plummer | Contributing Writer




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