After putting in three years of 50-60 hour weeks at my job, along with an hour long commute each way, I found that I had gained 25 pounds, my blood pressure had skyrocketed, I wasn't sleeping well, and my stress levels were through the roof. I was eating on the run most of the time. I was missing out on family activities and reconnect time with my hubby. And I had forgotten what exercise was. I felt like I was constantly in firefighting mode: putting out everyone else's fires except my own, which was raging out of control. I wasn't taking care of myself. I came to the conclusion that my job was killing me. Killing me slowly, but killing me nonetheless.
Do you work long hours and feel that your work is negatively impacting your eating habits, physical activity, sleep, stress levels and overall health? You're not alone, and you're not wrong.
Studies have shown that women who work long hours do, in fact, face a raft of negative health consequences.
One study conducted by researchers from The Ohio State University and Mayo Clinic tracked the work and health histories of 7,492 men and women over the course of 32 years. This study found that women who worked long workweeks experienced much higher health risks than men. Women who worked 60 or more hours per week over the course of three decades tripled their risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and arthritis. Women who worked 51 to 60 hours per weeks also had a higher risk of high blood pressure and asthma. (National Longitudinal Survey of Youth)
Another study of 7,065 Canadians tracked over 12 years found that women who worked more than 45 hours per week had a 63% greater risk of diabetes than those women who worked 35-40 hours per week. (BMJ Open Diabetes Research and Care)
A 2010 study by the European Society of Cardiology found that working 3 or more hours over a 7 hour workday increased the risk of heart disease, nonfatal heart attack, and angina by 60%. A subsequent 2017 study found a correlation between long working hours and an increased incidence of atrial fibrillation, the most common cardiac arrhythmia, which can contribute to stroke, heart failure, and stroke-related dementia.
Other health risks that can be experienced by women working long hours and demanding jobs include musculoskeletal disorders (especially for women working in manufacturing and assembly) and mental health issues including stress, anxiety, and depression.
In addition to our work, we women often engage in significant "unpaid labor", such as chores, childcare for our own children and grandchildren, and caregiving for spouses, elderly parents, or other relatives.
With long work hours, long commutes, and family responsibilities, we have less time for self care, we eat what we can when we can, we put off exercising, we experience significant stress, and we lose sleep due to stress and higher rates of insomnia in midlife.
The risks of working long hours are clear, but there are ways to gain balance between the demands of your job and your health. More employers are recognizing the importance of work-life balance and they are creating wellness plans for their employees.
When I figured out that my job was negatively affecting my health, I knew something had to change. Here are some strategies you can use to improve your health while balancing the demands of your job:
One of the perils of working long hours is eating out, eating fast food, and eating on the run. Making the decision to substitute healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats, can improve our health. You can begin to make changes by packing a healthy lunch, bringing healthy snacks to work, and meal prepping healthy dinners for the week. (If you need help learning to add more fruits and vegetables into your diet, join the Bunny Trail Challenge.)
Exercise - Schedule a regular exercise time
Treat your exercise time as an important meeting on your schedule. You wouldn't skip out on that important meeting, so don't skip out on your exercise time. Just 30 minutes a day is all you need for walking, biking, jogging, swimming, body weight exercises, or some other physical activity that you enjoy and can commit to. Schedule a time of day when you have no other obligations (I find early morning is the best time for me.)
Set Aside Time for Self Care
I know time is hard to come by, but if you don't take care of yourself, you won't be able to take care of the other important responsibilities in your life. You have to make yourself a priority. Self care is your pampering time, the time you use to make yourself feel valuable and cared for. Don't willingly give this time up!
Schedule regular check ups and request the days off well in advance
When you visit your doctor regularly for well woman checkups, you will establish a baseline of your health markers so that if something goes off trend, your doctor can catch it early. If you can catch a potential health problem early, you have a better chance of treating it before it becomes serious. In addition, your physician can be a valuable partner in your plan to improve your overall health and wellness. Don't miss those checkups! Put them on your calendar and request the days off so you don't forget when life gets hectic.
Discuss with your employer if schedule flexibility is an option
Some employers are beginning to offer flexible work schedules and work-from-home arrangements. Employers and employees are finding that such schedules can improve productivity while increasing employee satisfaction. If your employer is open to the idea and you feel a more flexible schedule would improve your health, ask if this would be an option for you.
Set Limits on your work availability
If you find yourself answering work emails and texts at all hours of the day or night, and that this availability is increasing your stress and decreasing your emotional engagement with the important people in your life, it's time to set some limits. Notify your manager and your co-workers the hours you will be available and then stick to the limits. Create a clear dividing line between work and personal time. Just because you are answering all those texts and emails after hours doesn't mean you are more productive. Most of those communications are not true emergencies and can be dealt with during your normal working hours.
Cut back on hours
If you are consistently working over 45 to 50 hours a week, consider if you can cut back. If your employer requires mandatory overtime, this may not be an option, but if the extra time is not mandatory, consider rescheduling your day or delegating tasks so that you are able to work fewer hours at least some weeks.
Go to bed earlier
Getting adequate sleep is extremely important both for your health and to manage stress. Schedule your bedtime so that you can get between 7-8 hours of sleep a night. Many people find that going to bed earlier and getting up earlier in the morning helps them to feel more energetic and calm the next day.
Stand up and walk around frequently
Don't be a victim of sitting disease. If you work a desk job, it's easy to sit for several hours without moving around. Set an alarm on your watch or on your desk so that you get up and walk around the office every hour. And consider walking meetings or a lunch time walk to get in those extra steps.
Speaking of sitting at the desk, adding a few desk exercises throughout the day can help to improve your strength and mobility as well. Here are some desk exercise suggestions to get you started.
It's is important to understand that you do not have to sacrifice your health to your job. However, you will have to make choices to actively promote your health, to stand up for your health, and to prioritize your health. You will have to set aside the time for healthy eating, healthy physical activity, and stress management. You will have to set clear boundaries between work and your personal time. When you put your own health and welfare first, you will improve the odds that you will be a happy and productive worker, either in someone else's business or in your own, and you will be better able to care for those around you.