Productivity, happiness and stress: What are the effects of working longer hours?

Productivity, happiness and stress: What are the effects of working longer hours?

Tuesday 5th March 2019
Alex Pedley

It's getting late and Greg is still in the office. He is tired, struggling to concentrate and his productivity has plummeted. He's been working on a project and the deadline is tomorrow morning. Greg has little choice but to keep going. Sadly, this has become a regular part of his role and it's starting to take its toll on him. If he's honest, his heart just isn't in it like it used to be and he is now just getting through each day. He wakes up most mornings feeling anxious and overwhelmed, thinking of the sheer volume of work that is expected of him. He is tired, worn out, deeply stressed and surviving until the next holiday arrives.

This may sound familiar to you and for good reason; a study in 2018 by Gallup of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes - that's around two-thirds of employees who experienced this feeling.

It is common for people to suffer in silence, leaving it to the last moment before taking a break. Don't be one of them. Taking time to prioritise your health will allow you to stay at the top of your game. The same study cited that those employees who experienced burnout have, on average, 13% less confidence in their performance.

The study also found that such employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a new job. The problem is that many employees feel isolated and unable to discuss their problems, which can lead to ill health.

The effects of poor sleep on the economy

When work pressures increase, the tendency is to work later and start earlier. Although working longer hours to get more done might seem logical, the opposite is true.

Working longer means less opportunity to recover in the day and often affects sleep quantity and quality. Sleep deprivation is linked to lower productivity at work, which results in a significant number of working days being lost each year.

A recent study showed that on an annual basis, the UK loses just over 200,000 working days, which equates to $50 billion, 1.86 per cent of its GDP due to sleep deprivation.

Small changes to sleep duration could have a big impact on the economy. For example, if those who slept less than six hours increased their sleep by an hour, this could add $29.9 billion to the UK economy, the study showed.

The effect on the employee

More than 40 per cent of professionals report that they often lose sleep because they can't get their job off their minds, according to a survey of 2,800 people by global staffing firm Accountemps. Nearly 60 per cent of those aged 18 - 34 report losing sleep over work, compared with just 29 per cent of people over the age of 55. Men are more likely than women to let work keep them up (50 per cent v 40 per cent).

If you don't sleep enough at night, your body boosts its levels of stress hormones. The brain's chemicals connected with deep sleep are the same ones that tell the body to stop the production of stress hormones. As a result, when you don't sleep well, your body keeps pumping out those hormones The next day, you feel more stressed, the following night you find it harder to fall asleep, and so on. Even worse, stress hormones peak in the afternoon and early evening - just when you should be relaxing and preparing to switch off.

Holiday time

Greg would lie there frustrated, unable to sleep, tossing and turning until the morning came. As you would expect, this cycle of poor sleep started to negatively affect him and over time, coupled with the pressure of his work role, he was left on the brink of burnout. He would book a holiday, longing for it to come around faster so he could have some rest... but when the holiday came he would become ill.

This phenomenon, termed the 'let-down effect', is common among busy professionals who work to strict deadlines. Often coinciding with the arrival of the weekend or while on holiday, following a period struggling under the burden of work or family pressures, your body releases a number of chemicals - including stress hormones - mobilising your immune system against illness. But when the stressful period ends, your immune system subsides, and you become more susceptible to illness. Your body thinks that it is safe to relax, thereby opening itself up to illness.

The time that should be spent relaxing is instead spent fighting illness leading to a vicious cycle of work followed by illness. This can have a negative effect on mental and physical wellbeing.

The surge and fall of stress hormones may also knock down dopamine levels in the brain, which could be the reason many people drink after a stressful day at the office, unconsciously trying to raise the dopamine levels to stimulate the feeling of pleasure. This, however, may actually play a part in increasing the stress response due to the effect too much alcohol can have on sleep quality. After drinking, our ability to go into the deepest part of sleep - NREM sleep - may be reduced. The amount of alcohol depends on the individual and their tolerance. Deep sleep stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, moving away from the state of fight or flight to rest and digest.

Sharp deadlines and last minute projects are par for the course in the corporate world - so how can you better manage stress levels in your day to avoid the 'let-down effect' and becoming ill while supposedly relaxing and switching off?

The key is to implement recovery strategies in your life that allow you to find time to relax. Firstly, getting a good night's sleep is essential to put the breaks on the fight or flight reaction. Ensure that your room temperature is kept between 16 and 18°C.

A part of your brain called the hypothalamus controls your circadian rhythm, sending signals to your body to release melatonin, which makes you feel drowsy. This can, however, be affected by any form of light. When light gets into your room from things such as the streetlights, it can trigger your brain to think that morning is coming. Making sure that your room is pitch black will ensure that you are able to enter into a deep sleep for longer.

Another form of light that can play havoc with your sleep is the blue light emitted from your smartphones, TVs, laptops and tablets. It can suppress the secretion of melatonin, resetting your internal body clock, increasing your alertness late at night and delaying the onset of sleep.

Probably the most important of all is a sleep routine to ensure that, as much as possible, you go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. This allows your body clock to maintain a regular sleep/wake cycle, (the circadian rhythm). Your circadian rhythm is your internal body clock, which generally runs on a 24-hour cycle between sleepiness and alertness.

As well as improving sleep quality and quantity, it is important to give yourself opportunities to recover during the day. Simple tricks such as going for a walk without your smartphone or going to speak to a colleague will give you a much-needed chance to briefly switch off from the demands of the day.

Stress is often referred to as the silent killer. A 2017 study cited major health risks related to job burnout, such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, high cholesterol and even death for those under the age of 45. Although you may believe that you are handling stress well, the effects may be impacting your health behind the scenes.

Prioritise sleep and periods in your day for recovery. You'll not only improve productivity but also enhance your wellbeing. You are your greatest asset - look after yourself.

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