If you're not working too much are you even doing it right?
Updated: Feb 24
Overwork is doing more than you can do while still taking care of yourself.
Overwork is detrimental to health and does not result in greater performance or output.
The field of research around overwork is growing, especially with the pandemic in view. In May, the World Health Organization and International Labour Organization released a paper suggesting more people are dying from consistently working over 55 hours a week than from malaria.
"There are two major ways that overwork can reduce health and longevity. One is the biological toll of chronic stress, with an uptick in stress hormones leading to elevated blood pressure and cholesterol. Then there are the changes in behavior. Those logging long hours may be sleeping little, barely exercising, eating unhealthy foods and smoking and drinking to cope." - Christine Ro, BBC Article: "How overwork is literally killing us"
This research does not account for the ways in which everyday life requires a similar, if not more, output as our jobs. There are other studies that showed some people experience less stress at work than at home, so the cumulative stress of overextending across the board is worth exploring.
There is consensus, though, that overwork does not actually produce a greater output. In this study, employees who worked 80 hours a week had the same output as others who pretended to overwork.
Neurodivergent Brains & Overwork
When we work too much, we get tired and our stress response stays constantly triggered. This leads to less sleep and more difficulty regulating attention and emotions. Overworking is broadly accepted as detrimental, yet also a celebrated pillar of economies and societies worldwide.
People with neurodivergent brains are pushed to perform beyond their capacity from infancy.
Terry Matlen, a therapist specialized in ADHD in women, once said a baby with a sensitive nervous system who needs to be held to fall asleep is the target of their parents' frustration and, often, other people's displeasure.
The pressure to perform like "everybody else" is driving brilliant neurodivergent people out of the workforce. Layer that with those who have intersectional identities and you can see why this is so problematic.
Overworking in one area of life makes it impossible to shift to another area that suddenly needs your attention. This contributes to the existing challenge with transitions and black/white thinking.
What do you do about it?
Stop it. Kidding. Well, not really.
Here's where I tell you that the choice to not overwork is often reserved for those with privileged identities and wealth. It's inappropriate to tell everyone to just set better boundaries or find another job. There are no quick fixes for overwork.
The reality is we live and work in a society that worships those who overextend themselves so long as there is a positive output. We won't be praised for working an extra 10 hours on a task our peer completed in three.
What can we influence?
Our perspectives on ourselves and the value we hold with or without productivity.
We can set boundaries for ourselves. Many of us are creative and add work to our list that isn't necessary (or even asked for).
If you have a history of underperforming, you may bend toward people-pleasing. The more you try to please everyone, the less pleased you are and the greater you risk burnout.
Burnout is not just being exhausted and fed up with something. It is an internal collapse of a sense of self, meaning, and purpose.
The impact of burnout on our health, relationships, careers, and communities we serve can be detrimental.
What core beliefs are driving us to over-function?
What could happen if you stop pushing beyond your limits?
What perspective are you holding about your value and worth? What perspective is possible?
How can you shift your perspective on your value and worth?