Work seriously damages your health, say scientists

1 Oct|Andrew Smart

Work kills

WORKING long hours is as dangerous as smoking: it doesn’t matter if you do what you love.

People love smoking too. That doesn’t change the fact that smoking at least doubles your risk of cancer, stroke and heart disease. Clinical evidence is accumulating that work, whether you love it or not, increases your risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke.

A recent systematic review of the literature, in which all the known studies of a topic are reviewed and their statistics meta-analyzed, has shown that employees who work long hours have a 40% increased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) (see Heart disease is still the reigning world champion of leading causes of death, and no other disease will challenge CHD for the coming decades. Smoking in comparison increases your risk of CHD at least 50%. The dangers of smoking are strongly dose-dependent, i.e., the more you smoke the higher your risk. It is very much the same with work, the more you work the higher the risk to your long-term health.

People who work long hours, whether it’s defined as working more than 10 or 11 hours a day, or more than 40 hours per week, tend to suffer from sleep deprivation and an inability to rest during time-off. Both of which increase the risk of developing heart disease. In response to work related stress your brain secretes epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. These substances are in elevated levels are associated with the progression of atherosclerosis, increased risk of CHD and stroke.

Working long hours also takes an enormous toll on our psychological and emotional health. A recent study showed that your risk for a major depressive episode is 2.5 times higher if you work more than 11 hours per day versus 7-8 hours per day. I have personal knowledge of people completely collapsing after working for several years more than 11 hours per day. Furthermore, working more than 8 hours a day decreases your cognitive performance.

Modern offices have further negative impacts on our cognitive abilities. We are not only working more, but we are also working with more and more interruptions. We spend anywhere from 25-50% of our days just recovering from interruptions. Checking emails 30-40 times per hour leads to a 10-point loss in IQ.

The topic of working hours has gained an increasing amount of attention lately. Several people in the tech industry have come out defending the practice of working 60 hours per week. In fact working “only” 40 hours is now seen almost as a part time job. In order to be successful you must demonstrate your total commitment to your job, which means having any outside interests, a family or even taking leisure time means you do not deserve to have VC backing.

The degree to which people are expected to sacrifice their entire lives and identities to their jobs is reminiscent of religious cults like Scientology. In order to be a Scientologist you are expected to devote your whole life to the cult – not just show up at church on Sundays. CEOs and startup founders describe their jobs as their children and take pride in subsuming their lives under their careers. You must show that you are completely obsessed with your job.

Despite most jobs becoming less and less fulfilling and a full 70% of Americans now being “actively disengaged” from their jobs, we are working more and more hours. Tuning out from work coincides with the rise of digital monitoring of employee activity to near ubiquitous levels. This allows employers to track every movement, conversation, email and gesture with precision so that in the best case your boss can waste hours coaching you on how to be more efficient, in the worst case it can lead to your dismissal for discussing last night’s Olympic coverage too long. It’s as if employers know that even though you spend 11 hours a day at the office you don’t really care about your bullshit job and they need track your level of emotional engagement with machine-learning algorithms.

So rather than do anything about the root cause of over-bureaucratized tedium, your employer would rather put sensors on your body to make sure you really love your job – or at least make sure you’re not sleeping. My recent book on the topic argues for the great many benefits of leisure and idleness for our brains.

The question is how much of our health should we be expected to risk in order to run-in-place on the economic treadmill?


Andrew Smart is the author of Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing which explores the psychological and neural benefits of idleness. The book makes a serious neuroscientific argument that our wage-slave society and busyness obsession cause brain damage. Andrew has degrees in cognitive science from Lund University in Sweden. He is currently working on a new book about machine consciousness and LSD. Andrew works in the area of human-computer interaction research and human factors.