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Steps We Can All Take To Defy Our Culture Of Overwork

We’re killing ourselves by working too much, but what’s the remedy when we want to hold on to our jobs and reputations?

Steps We Can All Take To Defy Our Culture Of Overwork
[Photo: Flickr user Nicolas Alejandro]

It’s no secret that Americans are overworked; you probably feel overworked right now. In fact, in numerous studies and surveys, at least a third of Americans say they work too much. And according to the OECD’s most recent Better Life Index, compared to 35 other advanced nations, the U.S. ranks the 8th-worst country when it comes to work-life balance.

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The result of all of this overwork is overwhelmingly conclusive: It’s killing us. Overwork has been linked to heart disease (at nearly twice the normal rate), stress, depression, and a host of other serious health-related problems. Overwork puts a wedge in family life and work-life balance becomes elusive.

There are clear economic consequences as well. Overwork leads directly to employee disengagement, which produces a productivity shortfall to the tune of $450-$550 billion per year, according to Gallup.

When you’re an entrepreneur building a business, sometimes it’s necessary to work long hours, and work harder than the next guy, in order to get ahead. But when you pass on that expectation to your employees, or when working too many hours becomes status quo, it’s a big problem.

A lot of the issues surrounding overwork are corporate and/or cultural problems; we, as a culture, value busyness, and in some ways we feel it proves our worth, both to ourselves and our acquaintances. We all want to show our friends and our bosses that we’re working harder than the next guy, either to hold on to scarce jobs, to impress, or to increase our perceived value in the community.

This is a disaster.

So what can we as individuals do about it without putting our livelihoods in danger?

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1. If You’re A Boss, Reduce Your Team’s Hours

Make it a policy to leave work an hour earlier across the board. My guess is you will see an immediate uptick in productivity, and it will help you create a team of happy people who want to go to bat for you.

2. Take Your Vacations

It sounds simple, but millions of Americans will not take their allotted vacation days, which is hazardous to your health. In fact, taking a vacation can make you better at your job. So use your vacation time, and enjoy it.

3. Schedule Free Time

One of the major problems in corporate settings today is calendars run amok, where every square inch is filled with meetings. Take back some time by scheduling free blocks in advance and keep it sacred. Use the free blocks to take a walk, exercise, reflect on important work, or strategize–anything to get you out of the usual everyday mode of work, work, work.

4. Let Your Mind Wander

A lot of us have a really hard time doing nothing, so we listen to a podcast at the gym or check emails while waiting in line–every iota of “doing nothing” gets gobbled up by tech. Ideas come when connections are made with a relaxed mind and then bubble up to the surface. It may seem counterintuitive, but if our brains are always engaged we never get the chance to really think.

5. Stop Talking About How Busy You Are

Together we must break the cycle in which busyness is a badge of honor. “I’m slammed.” “I’m fried.” “Things are good, but I’m so busy.” These responses to the question of “How are you?” should be stricken from our vocabulary. Make a point to stop, think about how you are, look other people in the eye, and take a moment to connect.

In the past labor unions fought for worker sanity. In our current work culture we have to take individual responsibility for our well-being and for the well-being of those around us. It’s time to alter the norms from within; our economy, health, productivity, and happiness depend on it.