Do I have what?  I certainly hope not! Karoshi is a Japanese word so it most likely is not in your vocabulary.  But when a 31 year old in Japan died of overworking (159 hours of overtime), that was the diagnosis, or to be more precise, heart failure due to Karoshi.  The literal translation is “death from overwork.”

Yael, a client of mine, is an office manager.  Yael works for a business that is seasonal, and there are times that she is overwhelmed in with her responsibilities.   Several tasks must be completed and submitted by a set deadline.  Basically, the pressure becomes intense and no matter what, the work must be turned in on time.  For Yael, there are certain months of the year where the pressure is great and the hours are long.  As she is currently on a weight loss program, it makes her compliance difficult to say the least.

Most now agree that it is medically possible to work yourself to death.  Karoshi research revealed that overworking or excessive stress can lead to stress cardiomyopathy. Sudden emotional stress can weaken the heart muscle leading to heart failure or arrhythmias.  Both overworking and sudden stress can lead to heart problems and even a heart attack.  Long-term stress can even lead to high blood pressure, higher resting pulse rates and heart rhythm disturbances.  When people overdo it, they may pay the price.

Employers are expecting better production, and society in general has placed financial pressures upon us that were non-existent only a generation ago.  The financial demands often force a household to work multiple jobs just to make the month.  What happened to the 40 hour work week?  Part of the problem is that it has become too easy to overwork.Yes – email, messaging and electronic media in general (internet) encourage us to work overtime, anytime, from almost anywhere. But working 60, 70 and even 80 hours a week takes its toll.

Sleep deprivation

First and foremost, overworking leads to sleep deprivation and impaired sleep. A wide body of research has shown that overworking can negatively impact your sleep. This can be the result of stress, the staring at the computer screen, or just not having enough time to unwind before going to sleep. This can cause us to build up “sleep debt.” Chronic sleep debt raises the risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

In the short-term, lack of sleep can have significant effects on the hippocampus in the brain, effecting memory.  Most of us get tired more easily than we think. If you think you’re one of those “lucky people” who can get by fine with only five or six hours of sleep then see The Wall Street Journal report.  For every 100 people who think they’re a member of this “sleepless elite,” only five actually are. Only 1–3% of people can actually pull off sleeping five or six hours a night without their performance suffering.

Bad for your heart

A long term study of 10,000 workers was conducted in London. Those who worked three or more hours longer than a seven-hour day had a 60% higher risk of heart-related problems than white-collar workers who didn’t work overtime. Examples of heart-related problems included death due to heart disease, non-fatal heart attacks, and angina.  A follow-up study of over 22,000 participants found that people who worked long hours were 40% more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease than those who worked standard hours.

Poor eating habits

When you overwork, if you don’t take necessary breaks to snack and eat meals, good eating habits go out the window.  Coffee becomes too much and too often. Exercise is put aside. When you have to make choices as to what to eat, you will tend to take a less healthy choice.  Part of that is because the hormone Cortisol is being over-produced and that can make us go for fatty and sugary foods in order to stay awake longer. This poor eating can lead to overweight and obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Overworking is not good for work production

It’s the law of diminishing returns.  When you work long hours, you make more mistakes and you are not as productive. Sarah Green Carmichael of Harvard Business Review calls the story of overwork “the story of diminishing returns”: keep overworking, and you’ll keep making avoidable mistakes.  So if you are trying to impress your boss, you won’t when the work you turn in isn’t good. If you are a boss or manager, research is clear that having breaks, getting fresh air and limiting the hours per day that you work ends up giving you a better product.

Vacations are important

We need to balance work and life (especially quality family time). This is always going to be a challenge. And today, when many are doing some or all of their work from home, it just gets more complicated.  Research is also quite clear that taking vacations, even short ones, is essential for good health.  Building in some down time from the workplace or business has been shown to improve health. The Framingham Heart Study revealed that men who didn’t take a vacation for several years, were 30% more likely to have heart attacks compared to men who did take time off.  In addition, other studies have shown lower rates of depression, less stress and better production in the work place for those who vacation.

Yael has learned that even at the busiest times in her office, taking the necessary breaks, eating properly, being active and exercising is imperative.

Karoshi is certainly the extreme. But any overwork can have many negative effects on our lives and our health.  We all need money, but we all need a good quality of life.  Finding a median point between our need for financial security and our health and welfare will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”