The first time Mary noticed the headache, it was 9 a.m. on a bright Tuesday morning. But she had a lengthy report to get through, so she chugged down a few cups of coffee and got to work.
The headache persisted, and then her shoulders began to tense. By the time 2 p.m. rolled around, she was hunched over her desk with a throbbing head in her hands.
Mary is a friend of mine. For weeks, she’d shared how she’d been unusually impatient with co-workers, snapping at them occasionally, and how she’d kept getting these random headaches throughout the day. “Sounds like your body’s trying to tell you something,” I gently mentioned over lunch.
The truth is, Mary had learned to override her physical discomfort in the name of productivity. She was working 60-hour work-weeks with constant deadlines looming over her, erroneously believing that all she needed was to learn how to better manage her time.
Many of us are guilty of this, particularly now. But I believe minding your calendar isn’t the only way to keep on top of your busy schedule.
How overwork leads to the breaking down of your body and mind
“There are two major ways that overwork can reduce health and longevity,” writes BBC contributor, Christina Ro. “One is the biological toll of chronic stress, with an uptick in stress hormones leading to elevated blood pressure and cholesterol.” She continues: “Then there are the changes in behavior. Those logging long hours may be sleeping little, barely exercising, eating unhealthy foods, and smoking and drinking to cope.”
So severe are the effects of overwork on our health that one alarming new study by the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization found that people who work more than 54 hours per week were putting themselves at grave risk, with three-quarters of a million people dying from coronary heart disease and stroke.
Ro notes that “death by overwork” doesn’t happen overnight; it slowly accumulates over years. “Ultimately, the problem of overwork—and the ill health it breeds—will continue if we don’t make changes in our working lives,” she writes.
Signs your body is warning you of burnout
Brain fog, high blood pressure, fatigue, headaches—all of these are like siren bells we often dismiss. But like Mary, who had learned to ignore her own physical discomfort—there are often cues that tell us we’re taking on more than we can handle. Psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, Adam Borland, describes an excessive load with this gas tank analogy: “It’s like a car trying to run with a very limited amount of gas in the tank. We’re expecting ourselves to perform physically and cognitively on such a high level but in reality, our reserves are tapped out.
So, what should we be on the lookout for to prevent the strain of overwork?
According to experts, rather than look at individual symptoms, we should take a holistic inventory of our overall well-being. According to the Cleveland Clinic, here are some of the biggest red flags of an unhealthy work-life balance:
- You’ve stopped taking care of yourself
- Your sleep is out of whack
- You’re skipping meals or not eating enough
- You’re not getting in enough exercise to balance out stress
- You’re turning to substances like drugs or alcohol when overwhelmed
- You’re neglecting important relationships and missing out on crucial social time
Why you should listen to your body
I’ve long been an advocate for work/life balance. For example, I don’t believe in answering emails on weekends or late into the night. For me, taking time off to do absolutely nothing is just as vital as the hours we clock in. My point is that we all need downtime to listen to and learn from our bodies. When you’re running on all cylinders, your adrenaline will keep you pushing ahead, despite unhealthy physical symptoms cropping up.
“In our society, it’s very common for people to habitually push through fatigue,” Susan Biali Haas M.D. writes for Psychology Today. “Just have an extra cup of coffee, eat something sugary to give you a temporary kick, or drink a high-voltage energy drink, rather than slowing down or resting. After all, getting things done is more important—or at least that’s what almost everyone tends to think.”
In the end, this is what I told my friend: You have to take pauses, or at least micro-breaks, throughout the day. Don’t just try to manage your calendar; you have to deliberately stop and listen to what your body is trying to say.
Restoring and refreshing yourself
In their eye-opening story for Harvard Business Review, coauthors Stephanie J. Creary and Karen Locke propose we can learn to adjust overwork patterns by learning to engage differently with our bodies. Mindfulness exercises like yoga and a body scan meditation can help us become more aware of our bodily experiences. Often we’re so caught up in work stress that we tune out physical discomfort. But when we do a body scan, we’re mentally scanning ourselves from head to toe—noticing sensations and ailments like aches and pains, tension, or heartburn.
Even taking a leisurely walk in nature can help us check back in with ourselves. It’s likely the act of slowing down and getting in touch with yourself will pay off more than attending to the next item on your queue of to-do’s.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of Jotform, an online form-builder.