Overworked and overwhelmed: How to safeguard your health

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, as the saying goes. But the consequences could be worse than that, according to a recent study.

“It should say, 'makes Jack a dead boy,' ” said a recent editorial in The New York Times, citing a study just released by the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization. The study estimates that, in 2016, working 55 hours a week or more was a factor in nearly 800,000 deaths globally from stroke or heart disease.

And that was before the pandemic. Now, with the economy gearing up and employers eager to get businesses back on track, employees may feel under the gun as never before. The trend toward telework may not be helping; working at home makes it that much harder to draw the line between work life and just life.

The signs of burnout

Because of pandemic-induced stress, you may have difficulty discerning the effects of pressure, long hours and heavy burdens. Psychology Today defines burnout as a state of chronic stress that leads to:

• Physical and emotional exhaustion;

• Cynicism and detachment; and

• Feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

Signs and symptoms may include sleeplessness, chronic fatigue, chest pains or heart palpitations, and shortness of breath. Mental health can be affected by anxiety, depression and even anger.

The downside for employers is significant. Working more than 40 hours a week is not associated with better business outcomes and improved productivity. In fact, the opposite is true. Are employers beginning to realize this? It's hard to say. Certainly human resources professionals should be aware of these issues, but it's not easy to change the culture of an organization.

So you can't count on your boss for help and you can't quit your job. What can you do to safeguard your health?

Manage 'overwork-itis'

I think the basic strategy is to manage your own expectations of yourself. What are your priorities, both personal and professional? Make a to-do list every day and prioritize: what's essential, what's merely important and what's expendable. If your company's culture expects responses to emails after hours, weekends and holidays, set aside 30 to 60 minutes to deal with them, and then walk away.

Beyond that, here are a few ideas:

• Get some physical activity every day. You don't have to go to the gym. Take a walk. If meetings are your life, try outdoor “walking meetings.”

• Moderate your alcohol intake. If you're hitting the wine or spirits the minute you walk through the door (or the minute it's 5 o'clock), take a hard look at your alcohol consumption. It may make you feel good in the short run, but long-term damage to your health, particularly your liver, heart and brain, is a risk. Drinking is endemic to some company cultures. If you have to drink to fit in, a club soda with lime looks just like a gin and tonic.

• Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation is a proven way to reduce stress levels. The Mayo Clinic defines mindfulness as becoming intensely aware of “what you're sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment.” (That's the hard part.) There are a lot of mindfulness and meditation apps out there; a good one for beginners is Headspace, which offers a few free meditations and a low-cost subscription.

• Breathe. This is part of a mindfulness practice. It's free, easy and quick. If you have a smartwatch, set it to remind you to breathe once an hour. You'll improve your oxygen, expel carbon dioxide and perhaps reduce your heart rate and blood pressure.

• Eat some fruits and vegetables. I know ... it's the same old advice, but it's important. Every restaurant you go to for a business lunch will have a salad with grilled chicken. Dressing on the side, please. With a chiller lunch bag, you can have that salad at your desk.

Practice self-care

You have to take care of you before you can take care of anyone else, including your company. It's kind of like putting on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others. If overwork and workplace stress are seriously affecting your physical and mental health, please see a doctor or mental health professional. If you need help finding a health professional, a patient advocate may be able to assist.

Nothing may change your company's culture. The only thing you can control is how you respond. Try to respond in your own best interests.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( She is offering a free, 30-minute phone consultation by calling (312) 788-2640 to make an appointment.

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