How many hours a day can we work without harming our health?

How many hours a day can we work without harming our health?

Overwork can not only bring money, but also harm mental and physical health. Working 12 hours or more a day will not make you more productive. But you run the risk of hating your life and compromising your health.

Continuing the series of articles about productivity on our website Optimist.pw today we will tell you how not to harm your health from overwork and how to avoid burnout from work.

How working hours relate to burnout

Burnout is not a medical diagnosis, but a specific type of stress. It is often work-related. It is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, combined with a feeling of lack of time and inner emptiness.

Occupational burnout is included in the International Classification of Diseases of the World Health Organization. WHO recognizes that work is good for the psyche, but points out that an unfavorable work environment can affect a person’s physical and mental health. According to the organization, about 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, costing the global economy one trillion dollars.

The consequences of burnout at work can include:

  • Excessive tension, fatigue, anger, irritability, cynicism;
  • Depression;
  • Insomnia;
  • Abuse of alcohol and psychotropic substances, and overeating;
  • Heart disease and high blood pressure;
  • Development of type 2 diabetes mellitus;
  • Weakening of the immune system.

Many people who experience burnout think that it has nothing to do with their work. At the same time high workload and overtime work are one of the risk factors of developing this condition.

Work time is directly connected to the classical type of burnout, when a person works more and more, trying to resolve professional issues or to get a significant reward. At the same time such a condition contributes to the deterioration of the employee’s productivity, to the frequency of tardiness and absenteeism.

How long can we work according to the law

According to the Labor Laws of most European countries, the normal working week should not exceed 40 hours. Also the law establishes additional restrictions on working hours for certain groups of people:

  • for minors – 24 hours for adolescents under the age of 16, 35 hours for workers aged 16-18;
  • for disabled persons of groups I and II – 35 hours;
  • for workers in hazardous and harmful working conditions of the third or fourth degree – 36 hours.

At the request of the employee, the employer must provide a part-time workweek with proportional pay:

  • for pregnant women;
  • for one of the parents (guardians) of a child under the age of 14;
  • for family members caring for a sick relative.

In addition, the law establishes the length of the work shift:

  • for minors – 4 hours for 14-15 year olds, 5 hours for 15-16 year olds and 7 hours for 16-18 year olds; for those combining work and study – 2 hours for 14-16 year olds and 4 hours for 16-18 year olds;
  • for persons with disabilities – according to a medical report;
  • for workers at harmful and hazardous work – 8 hours at 36-hour workweek and 6 hours at 30-hour workweek (12 and 8 hours if there is a special agreement);
  • for creative workers, employees of mass media and cultural institutions – according to the agreement.

Before public holidays, the length of the shift is reduced by 1 hour, and if it is impossible to do this, the time worked is compensated later. In a six-day work week, the shift before the weekend should not exceed 5 hours.

Why is it that working longer doesn’t make you more productive?

Everyone’s productivity has a limit. Working longer does not necessarily make you more efficient.

The classic 40-hour work week has long been tried as inefficient. Back in 1930, famed economist John Maynard Keynes suggested that in 2030 the workweek would be just 15 hours because economic and technological advances would allow it.

In 2016, nursing homes in Sweden experimented with introducing a six-hour workday, but keeping the employees’ salaries. In excess of that time, they were replaced by additional hired workers. As a result, the nurses were more productive and took less time off work. Many of the employees involved in the experiment were upset when they heard that the experiment was over and that they had to return to the 8-hour day.

However, this mode is not convenient for everyone: the head of a Swedish technology company, Erik Gatenholm, tried to instill the innovation in his production facility. Gatenholm was dissatisfied with the results: employees complained that they were accumulating backlogs of work.

In November 2019, Microsoft Japan published the results of an experiment with the introduction of a four-day workweek. It turned out that it increased productivity by 40%. It was not without reason that Microsoft Japan conducted this experiment: Japan is a country where overtime is considered the norm and amounts to more than 80 hours per month per person.

A large study on the relationship between work hours and productivity was released in 2014 by Stanford University economist John Penkavel. He compared workers from the beginning of the 20th century and today and concluded that task focus is much more important for an employee today than in the past, and it begins to deteriorate significantly after 6 hours of work per day and 40 hours per week.

How many hours a day can we work without harming our health?

Graph of the productivity of working hours: solid line – in daylight hours, dotted line – in dark hours. Illustration: Pencavel J. The Productivity of Working Hours. Discussion Paper.

Previously, another study by Finnish physicians found a link between working more than 55 hours a week and cognitive decline.

How does the length of the workday affect our health?

In 2017, Australian physicians published a study based on a survey of about 8,000 working people. Researchers concluded that a workweek longer than 39 hours is detrimental to mental and physical health. For women who do all the housework, they even set the bar at 34 hours per week.

And a study published in The Lancet found a pattern: People who work more than 55 hours a week are 33 percent more likely to suffer a stroke and 13 percent more likely to suffer from coronary artery disease.

The health consequences can also be specific to working in certain conditions. Consider them below.

When working at a computer

According to doctors and scientists, we should limit our time at the computer. Thus, it is recommended:

  1. Spend no more than 6 hours a day in front of a computer;
  2. Take 10-15 minute breaks every 45-60 minutes;
  3. Stay continuously in front of a computer for no more than an hour or two hours.

Sitting at a computer for a long time is primarily harmful to the musculoskeletal system and eyesight. Prolonged immobility leads to overstraining and curvature of the spine, the development of osteochondrosis and radiculitis.

Working a computer for a long time overstrains eye muscles, reduces the amount of tear fluid (dry eye syndrome), causes eye threads and impairs vision (computer vision syndrome). Also prolonged use of the keyboard and mouse may cause pain in the fingers, hands, wrists and shoulders.

To avoid these negative effects, take more frequent breaks and exercise during the working day, arrange your computer place correctly, and try not to sit in front of the monitor longer than recommended.

When you work while sitting

Sitting for long periods of time leads to blood stasis, which in turn leads to tissue dysfunction, vascular wall damage and hemorrhoids.

When you sit for a long time, you use less energy. This increases the risk of developing a whole bouquet of ailments: obesity, hypertension (high blood pressure) and cardiovascular disease, high blood sugar and cholesterol, even cancer.

People who sit continuously for more than 8 hours a day have the same risks of premature death as those who are obese or smoke.

Being physically active for 60 to 75 minutes a day greatly reduces the likelihood of negative effects. It also pays to take breaks every 30 minutes during sedentary work.

When you work standing up

Standing helps you burn twice as many calories as sitting. But it can also be just as bad for your health, since it greatly increases the strain on your spine and feet.

Prolonged standing on your feet increases the risk of chronic venous insufficiency, varicose veins, lower back pain and foot pain, as well as complications during childbirth. The optimal amount of time you can spend on your feet in a day is 2 to 4 hours.

It should be understood that by prolonged standing we mean continuously standing on your feet for more than 8 hours without movement. You should not choose flat-soled shoes for prolonged standing work. Experts recommend to wear shoes so that the heel is elevated at least 6 mm above the rest of the foot, while the heel should not be higher than 5 cm. Also, work shoes should fit you and support the arch of the foot. You can buy special orthopedic insoles.

The best prevention of disorders will be a combination of sitting and standing. And after prolonged standing on your feet, do warm-up: stretch on your toes, stretch the muscles of the foot. After a day of work it is desirable to massage feet or to lift them up for 15-20 minutes to restore the normal blood flow. If you feel pain in your feet and it does not go away for several days, see a doctor.

When working outdoors

Working outdoors and in unheated rooms refers to special working conditions, as it can cause general or local hypothermia. Both impair coordination and the ability to perform precise operations, cause inhibitory processes in the cerebral cortex, and contribute to the development of pathologies.

According to the laws of most European countries, the employer must provide working conditions that are not harmful to the health of workers, in particular to provide paid breaks for warmth and rest.

The duration of breaks must be specified in the employment contract. The temperature in the room for heating should be about 21-25 ° C. According to the law it is necessary to take a 10 minute heating break every two hours even at a temperature of -10 ° C. Failure to comply with these requirements can result in a heavy fine for the employer.

When working at night

Night work can cause restlessness, sleepiness, fatigue, inattention and disruption of metabolic processes in the body. It disrupts circadian rhythms, the body’s internal biological clock, which is responsible for the body’s transition between sleep and wakefulness.

Evolutionarily, our body is adapted to rest in the dark hours of the day. Therefore, even a long nap after a night shift will not help to compensate for its lack.

Moreover, disturbance of circadian rhythms leads to the fact that about 6% of DNA-chromosomes do not work correctly, i.e. at the wrong time. At the same time, long shifts (24 hours, for example) are no less harmful. And fatigue, in turn, increases the risk of heart disease and cancer, cigarette and alcohol addiction.

Circadian rhythms are difficult enough to shift so that the body adapts to being awake at night. To do this, you would have to work in bright light at night, wear dark glasses during the day, and sleep in a room with no light penetrating at all.

Most people won’t be able to do that. To avoid the negative consequences of working at night, it is much more effective to lead a healthy lifestyle: include sports in your daily routine, eat right and give up bad habits.

According to the law, when working at night (from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.) the working day is shortened by an hour, and it is equal to one shift during the day. Pregnant women and minors are also not allowed to work at night. Women with a child under three years of age, disabled persons and parents of children with disabilities, as well as workers caring for sick relatives are allowed to work at night on the doctor’s conclusion. Single parents and guardians of children under five years of age are allowed to work at night only with their written consent and in the absence of medical contraindications.

Remember that work is not the only thing that is important in life. A balance of work, rest and personal time will help you enjoy each day and get sick less.


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