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The Hazards of Overworking During the Pandemic

The Hazards of Overworking During the Pandemic

For many of those fortunate to have work during this era of record unemployment, working remotely has led to blurred boundaries and burning the candle at both ends. In the beginning of the new work-at-home reality, workers felt the need to be seen and heard more, albeit virtually, in order to prove their value, especially if remote work was not the norm in their organization.

Grace Stetson wrote about this nationwide issue in her ToggleTrack article.

Many people are now effectively working three jobs instead of one – as an employee, a parent/caregiver, and a teacher, for example – and the stress of their official full-time role ramping up their responsibilities can add further grievance to their lives. Should you now be required to work or be on duty for longer than you originally signed up for, you may lose time for sleep, exercise, relaxation, or catching up with family and friends.

Many organizations are requiring an “all hands-on deck” pace with fewer resources and more work as a result of pandemic losses.

Does a pandemic require more hours?

The question remains – does a pandemic mean you are obliged to work more hours? If so, what are the boundaries and how can one sustain this long-term? There is a growing body of research that indicates how important time away from work is for health and wellness – not to mention productivity on the job, no matter your rank or salary.

The British Medical Journal Lancet published a study indicating that people who work more than 55 hours a week have a 33% higher risk of stroke than those who work 35-40 hours a week. The 55+ hour/week workers are also at a 13% higher risk of heart disease. Bottom line – perpetual long hours negatively impact productivity and increase health problems.

[Related: Managing People in Abnormal Times]

Sustainable practices.

As a career and executive coach, I work with people in numerous job sectors and I know the mega-hour workweek problem is not just a phenomenon of the corporate world. It’s pervasive in all career fields and it must be addressed.

The “everyone is replaceable” mindset of burning out the human workforce only to replenish them with other employees is unethical and unwise. It takes more financial resources to recruit and train new talent than to develop and retain current employees.

Overworking employees leads to low morale, lower cognitive function, and a fall-off in productivity, according to the Harvard Business Review, which makes a case for a six-hour workday. Overworking isn't good for business, and it’s never a good thing for the people being overworked.

Top down solution.

Those at the top level in every organization hold the power to change the work culture. If the executives walk the talk with a sustainable pace, then junior employees will not fear retribution for working more reasonable hours.

Leadership must create a culture that focuses on productivity and not obligatory face time. By acting as role models, leaders set the tone in their organizations for employees in work/life integration practices and expectations for productivity and excellence.

It’s obvious that all organizations have crunch time deadlines, special projects, and scenarios that will require late nights and weekend work from time to time. That is to be expected. But the continual pace of mega-hour workweeks is unhealthy, unsustainable, and unrealistic for both the organization and employees in the long run.

[Related: What You Really Need to Know About Remote Work]

A new normal workplace.

Career management is a difficult journey for working adults. The challenge of dividing each 24-hour period into segments that include work, family, wellness, and sleep - not to mention activities outside of work that are meaningful and gratifying – is often unattainable.

The new work generation and some progressive organizations are moving the needle on work/life integration expectations in the career space. People can be highly productive and successful at work and still engage in their personal lives, but they need to find workplaces that share the same professional values.

The unsustainable overworking culture is being challenged by companies like United Health Group, Expensify, and others showcased in this article that have created new rules of engagement to attract and retain top talent by requiring them to work hard and giving them the flexibility to enjoy their lives.

Creating a new culture for sustainable success.

As organizations and industries evolve to meet the needs and demands of the pandemic workforce, I hope we’ll see many changes. My wish list includes:

  • Opportunities for job sharing and non-traditional part-time opportunities.
  • Flexible work schedules on a 24-hour cycle.
  • Focus on outcomes and accountability – not weekly hours.
  • Wellness integration in the workplace.
  • Permanent options for flexible and remote work.
  • Utilizing vacation time.
  • Leadership role models for healthy, productive, and accountable behavior.
  • Willingness to adapt to the changing talent pool and their needs.

It’s clear that our work routines will be different for the foreseeable future as we navigate a journey through the pandemic. It’s more important than ever to prioritize your health and wellbeing. The onus is on the workers and the leaders to clearly communicate about a sustainable work pace and clarity of expectations, or I fear we will see a massive population become debilitated and ill from overwork.

[Related: Human-Centric Organizations: A Positive Result of the Pandemic?]

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Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name. She is Vice President of Career Coaching and Employer Connections for the Ivy Tech Community College system and contributes to, Thrive Global, Ellevate NetworkMedium and The Chronicle newspaper in Indiana. Her online video series about career and life empowerment for women is on YouTube. She hosts the three-time award winning podcast, Your Working Life, available on iTunes and SoundCloud. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter. Her TEDxWOMEN talk about reframing failure and defining success on your own terms is available on YouTube.


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