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How does overworking affect your health?

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Long-term stress can have a serious impact on both physical and mental health. Photo: Getty

We all put in extra office hours from time to time, whether it’s to reduce the mounting pile of work on our desks or to impress our bosses.

The amount of free overtime worked by Brits last year reached £32.7 billion, according to recent research by the TUC. More than five million people put in an average of 7.5 hours a week in unpaid overtime during 2018, the TUC found.

While it’s OK to put in overtime when it’s needed, working too many hours too often can have a serious impact on health and wellbeing.

“Overworking staff hurts productivity, leaves workers stressed and exhausted, and eats into time that should be spent with family and friends,” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said.

One of the key issues is stress. Everyone feels stressed at work on occasion, but long-term stress can have a serious impact on both physical and mental health.

When we experience stress, our “fight-or-flight” response is activated. The sympathetic nervous system is activated and the body produces stress hormones, including adrenaline, cortisol, and noradrenaline. These allow our muscles to work better, our heart rate to increase, and our brain to be on alert — a physiological response our ancestors needed to defend themselves against a “stressor,” such as a predator attack.

READ MORE: Six ways to ease yourself back into work after an illness

Although this response is normal over a short period of time, long-term and consistent stress can lead to exhaustion, stomach problems, muscular issues, and other health conditions.

Many people experience a “dodgy” stomach when they’re stressed — which might mean a quick trip to the toilet before a high-pressure meeting, or interview. While it might be embarrassing, it’s normal.

One of the first physical symptoms of stress is often digestive problems. Stress can cause the stomach to tense up and become irritated, causing symptoms such as cramping, aches, diarrhea, and constipation.

If you’ve ever had aching shoulders or a sore back after a stressful day at work, you aren’t alone. Muscle tension is a common side effect of stress because your muscles contract when your fight-or-flight system is activated. This can cause pain, soreness, and even headaches, particularly if you’re hunched over a desk or on your feet all day.

Muscle tension is a common side effect of stress. Photo: Getty

Lots of people feel run down or generally unwell when they’re overworked, which isn’t surprising. Research has also shown stress can have a negative impact on the immune system.

Stress has been linked to cardiovascular problems too. A 2017 study in The Lancet found heightened activity in the amygdala — a region of the brain involved in stress — is associated with a greater risk of heart disease and stroke.

Many of us are guilty of turning to alcohol to curb the stress of a long day, but drinking too much in the long term — as well as too much smoking or overeating — can increase the risk of developing heart disease.

If you’re overworked and stressed, it can affect your sleep too. You may struggle to fall asleep, plagued by racing thoughts of today’s challenges, or you may wake up in the night worrying about the future.

Frustratingly, stress and sleep problems work in a cyclical fashion. The adrenaline and cortisol released by the fight-or-flight response cause what is known as “arousal” or alertness, which prevents you falling asleep. But not being able to get to sleep, or waking up throughout the night, can cause further stress and anxiety — preventing sleep further.

READ MORE: How sleep deprivation impacts our work and the economy

Frequent poor-quality sleep can have a serious impact on your health, increasing your risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and mental health problems.

It’s important not to underestimate the effect stress has on our levels of exhaustion. Burnout, a complete system breakdown caused by prolonged stress, impacts our physical and mental health.

Although each person experiences stress differently, signs can including emotional, cognitive, and physical exhaustion. It also manifests as constant worrying, which leads to feeling irritable and overwhelmed. Those experiencing burnout and high levels of stress may also find it hard to concentrate or make decisions.

It’s important to recognise when you are stressed and address the physical and emotional symptoms. Changing the way you work — such as reducing your hours, making sure you take a lunch break, or asking to ease your workloads — can be a good idea. Making sure you take time off is also key.

Getting regular exercise and making lifestyle changes, such as cutting down on alcohol, can also clear your head when you feel overwhelmed. If you need support, speaking to family and friends can help you think through problems, rather than bottling them up.

There is also no shame in speaking to your GP if you are struggling with stress, as doctors can help guide you to the right support and treatment.