Working Yourself to Death

We’re all guilty of checking work email during our ‘off’ hours. Maybe you scrolled through your inbox bored on a Sunday afternoon? Maybe you replied to a colleague while making dinner? Or worse… you replied to your boss while on that European vacation.

Why is it so hard for some people to pull themselves away from the inbox? This behavior sends a signal to your bosses and colleagues that you are always available and that your work boundaries are flexible.

A recent study from researchers from Virginia Tech suggests that this behavior also impacts personal relationships—namely the one with your significant other. The study is called “Killing Me Softly: Electronic Communications Monitoring and Employee and Significant-Other Well-Being.”

The study found that there’s a high level of anxiety when the work associated with e-communications are engaged by employees during off-work hours and this adversely affects the health of employees and their families. Taking work home, even if it’s only replying to emails, can harm employees, the researchers report. Just the expectation to be available during off work time increases life stress and anxiety for employees and can damage their relationship with a significant other. (Related post: “Is Stress Contagious?“)

Cultural expectations of being “always on” deplete employees from physical and psychological agency. If the company culture rewards being always available, there’s a chance the expectation will be seen as a benefit by employers.

“Our research exposes the reality: ‘flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being,” write the researchers.

In some cultures where overworking oneself is expected, the anxiety has spilled over to death. Japanese workers recently made headlines when the government and some companies began initiating policies toward implementing a work-life balance.

The Japanese even have a word for overworking oneself: karoshi. In 2015, a 24-year-old woman working in Japan’s largest advertising firm killed herself after logging in more than 100 hours of overtime in the month leading up to her death. In another case a 31-year-old journalist died from heart failure after logging in 159 hours of overtime in one month with only two days off.

The government released a white paper on karoshi, and it reports that a fifth of Japanese workers face the risk of death from being overworked.

In the US, the numbers aren’t as dire. However, the culture of being overworked– whether by taking work home or logging in more hours at work– can take a toll. Burnout, depression, anxiety and illness are common with overworked people. These symptoms not only affect the body but overall job performance. Psychology Today published a piece about the warning signs that include feeling detached, irritable and hopeless.

So what should employees and companies do?

In terms of electronic communications, study co-author and associate professor of management in the Pamplin College of Business William Becker at Virginia Tech, advises that companies enforce policies that reduce expectations to monitor electronic communication outside of work. Corporations should be realistic about what they expect from employees. For example, if it’s a position that demands off-hour communication, that should be clearly stated as part of the job.

Employees have a right to say ‘no’ and employers need to respect those personal boundaries. When you clock off, really do it. Don’t develop a behavior where you allow yourself to be overworked. Do things that detach from work and allow you to connect with yourself, your family and environment.

Becker also advises practicing mindfulness to reduce anxiety and reduce conflict within family interactions. Ultimately, it’s the employee that exercises control of their time, on and off work. I like to use the Muse device for my daily meditation, because it tracks my brainwave patterns with real-time feedback– if I am hearing “birds,” I know I am “in the zone” for the best meditative state. You can read about the Muse device here.

How are your habits? Does your company have policies for these boundaries, and are they truly respected? Share in the comments!


Original article courtesy of Ann Shippy MD.