Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Work in Your Downtime

By Carrie Kirby on 12 February 2018 0 comments

Americans are known workaholics. We rarely bat an eye at working more than 40 hours per week, or skipping a few vacation days for the year, or answering emails from home on a Saturday.

Working when we should be unwinding helps us get stuff done, right? Not really. In fact, while you might feel like you’re “getting ahead,” you may actually be harming yourself, your company, and the U.S. economy. And when you think of it that way, it’s pretty much your patriotic duty to close your laptop and turn on Stranger Things, stat.

Here are the main reasons working during your off hours is bad for you.

1. It can ruin your career in the long run

Working more than 40 hours a week can lead to burnout, pushing you to leave your job sooner than you planned. A 2017 survey by Kronos Incorporated and Future Workplace showed that human resources professionals cited burnout — with after-hours work as one of the leading causes — as the top reason for employee turnover. (See also: 4 Signs You're Burned Out (and How to Recover))

2. It makes you less productive

Many studies have shown that overtime hours are less productive than regular hours. It’s not a new idea; Henry Ford is reported to have cut his employees’ workweek down to 40 hours in order to maximize productivity. An analysis published by the International Game Developers Association posited that “at approximately eight 60-hour weeks, the total work done is the same as what would have been done in eight 40-hour weeks.” They would know; the video game industry is famous for subjecting workers to endless periods of crunchtime.

But most of those studies analyze workers clocking time at the office or in a factory. Does productivity also benefit from putting away your work email and refusing work phone calls over the weekend? Yes, according to research by a Harvard professor working with Boston Consulting Group, who forced hard-driving consultants to take “predictable time off” even during busy times. At the end of multiple months-long experiments, the consultants reported that they had been able to deliver a better product to their clients with regularly enforced nights off from phone calls and emails.

3. It can break your heart — literally

A recent study published in European Heart Journal found that “compared to people who worked a normal week of between 35 to 40 hours, those who worked 55 hours or more were approximately 40 percent more likely to develop atrial fibrillation during the following 10 years.” Researchers adjusted for factors such as age, obesity, and smoking. Atrial fibrillation contributes to both stroke and heart failure.

A Centers for Disease Control report linked working too many hours to other physical problems, such as unhealthy weight gain, increased alcohol use, increased smoking, and overall increased mortality. That’s right: You can literally work yourself to death, with a relatively modest amount of extra hours.

4. And it can break your soul

A 2015 study of Korean workers linked working more than 52 hours per week with an increase in suicidal thoughts.

And it’s not just the number of hours worked that is burning people out: A 2016 study by Lehigh University revealed that employees who are expected to answer work emails after hours experience more “emotional exhaustion” — caused just as much by the anticipation that email could arrive at any time as by the actual time spent answering them.

5. It’s lowering your IQ

Believe it or not, a 2016 Australian study found that, for people over 40, cognitive ability declines after just 25 hours of work a week. That means if you’re putting in 40 hours in the office, and another two hours in the evening, your performance should start declining sometime around Wednesday.

Even worse, putting in extra time may actually be shrinking your brain. If answering those late-night emails is stressing you out — and why wouldn’t it? — that chronic stress can lead to a decrease in brain volume and cognitive impairment, Yale researchers have found.

6. It’s ruining your family life

According to a 2015 work-life balance survey, more than half of 9-to-5 workers say that answering work emails and texts has ruined their familial meals. Nearly 40 percent say poor work-life balance is completely wrecking their time with family and friends. Another 40 percent of respondents claim they've missed life events such as weddings and birthdays due to work. (See also: 9 Signs Your Work-Life Balance Is Off)

7. It’s also also terrible for your company’s bottom line

Most workers say they work during off hours because of company expectations — but those companies may be shooting themselves in the foot. Not only are they losing out due to decreasing productivity rates and increasing turnover, they’re also costing themselves money. Think about all of the health issues mentioned earlier that can be brought on by stress. Companies that don’t respect their employees’ work-life balance will end up paying for it with higher health insurance premiums and more employee absences.

8. You need your sleep

Business leaders surveyed by consultancy McKinsey reported that the expectation that they’d always be available to answer emails and phone calls prevented them from getting adequate sleep. Sleep deprivation leads to almost every problem on this list, and what’s more, it’s dangerous at work: The National Sleep Foundation reports that sleepy workers are 70 percent more likely to be involved in an accident. A Swedish study even found that workers with sleep problems were twice as likely to die in workplace accidents.

9. It takes opportunity away from others

Helicopter parents deny their kids the chance to develop independence by being constantly available to help. Are you a helicopter boss or coworker? If you are completely unavailable while on vacation or a day off, the staff covering for you will have to make decisions without you, giving them the chance to grow. If you make yourself constantly available, you could be stunting that growth.

10. It makes you gain weight

Anyone who ever pulled an all-nighter in college knows that when we’re sleep deprived, we make terrible food choices. There are scientific reasons for that, but for me, I just know that if I can’t have my cozy bed, I deserve All. The. Chocolate.

There’s also the decrease in physical activity. If you’ve been sitting at your desk for eight hours, plus an hour or more in your car to get to work and back, you should be using a good chunk of your remaining waking hours to be active. If you end up sitting in front of your home computer catching up on your team’s Slack channel, you’re missing out on active time.

Working during your off hours also cuts into time for preparing healthy meals. And if you find yourself actually eating your dinner in front of your computer, so much the worse. Research shows that when we are distracted by a screen while we eat, we’re more likely to snack later.

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