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“You need a break!” said my husband, “Check your diary to see when you’ve got a weekend free and we’ll go bush.”

Are you working too hard? Putting in too many hours? Overthinking, worrying, and stuck on the daily treadmill of dealing with too much stuff?

Getting caught up in the perpetual cycle of busyness can develop for a myriad of reasons; because we’re looking to get ahead, seeking a competitive edge, or trying to stay afloat in challenging times. 

Overwork can also be cultural. The Japanese have a word for it, Karoshi – meaning death by overwork. Following the death of a 24-year-old in 2015 who was reportedly working 105 hours of overtime per month on top of her 40-hour working week, steps have been taken to cap the number of overtime hours an employee is allowed to clock each month to help reduce the suicide rate, especially in young people. 

In the 12-month period up to March 2015, 1456 Karoshi deaths were recorded, the highest ever.

A government survey undertaken in October 2015 revealed one in five Japanese workers were at risk of death from overwork. As a business owner or employer having 20% of all staff at risk of Karoshi indicates a serious cultural problem requiring urgent attention. Which is why the Japanese government launched the “Premium Friday” campaign in late February to encourage employees to leave work early on the afternoon of the last Friday of each month. 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abo took the lead by leaving his office at 3.30pm on the first Premium Friday to attend a Zen meditation session at a Tokyo temple.

Only 3.7% of Tokyo area employees took advantage of leaving earlier that day. But in a culture where working 80-100 hours overtime each month is the norm, shifting behaviours and accepting change is likely to take some time.

Here in Australia, the problem of overwork typically manifests as chronic tiredness, feeling constantly stressed and worried about taking time off because the payback of what will await on our return is sometimes seen as not worth the pain.

Are you or your staff at risk of working too hard?

What does work-life balance mean to you?

The Australian Work Life Index (AWALI) indicates that an increasing number of people, 25% FT working women and 20% FT working men are dissatisfied with their work-life balance. 

But work-life balance means different things to different people. The 2016 SEEK Learning Defining Work-Life Balance Report identified four different interpretations:

  • 34% said it was about flexibility in hours/location
  • 15% said it was about having no overtime
  • 27% said it was work that doesn’t disrupt home life
  • 23% said it was the ability to time-bank

What matters most to you?

Taking a break is essential for better brain health

To think well, remember what matters and have the confidence of knowing you’re working well starts with a fit and healthy brain. Getting enough sleep, and keeping our regular healthy habits of exercising regularly, eating healthily and managing stress by taking time out to chill and relax helps us as individuals to function at our best and is good for business too.

Chronic fatigue contributes to a rising sleep debt (because of difficulty either getting to sleep or maintaining sleep), poorer attention and memory consolidation, increased mistakes, loss of creativity and a drop in productivity.

Worrying about unfinished work or looming deadlines impacts sleep and performance. It makes it harder to distinguish between what’s important and urgent and what is simply “noise.” This leads to a chronically active limbic system and the accumulation of toxic levels of cortisol, which in excess damages synaptic connections between neurons and inhibits synaptogenesis – the formation of new synaptic connections making it harder to learn new information or access previous experience.

Overactivity of the amygdala can lead to an increase in the generation and intensity of negative emotion, increasing negative self-talk, anxiety and depression, loss of motivation and disinterest in our work.

Compensating with increased caffeine (or alcohol) intake and abandoning healthy habits makes it harder to think well, and can lead to poorer decision-making.

More input can lead to reduced output

Research back in the eighties by the Business Round Table showed that increasing regular working hours from 40 to 60 hrs per week results in 25-30% more work being completed, not 50%. Stepping up occasionally to do overtime isn’t the issue, it’s about avoiding buying into the notion that we have to get used to working long hours to get all our work done. 

Extended working hours are counterproductive and potentially deadly.

Our best thinking time is limited to between 2-3 hours each day. Think of it as having 2-3 hours of Grade A thinking with the rest of our working day falling into Grades B, C or D. Staying on to work late means you’ll need longer to get that extra work done because you will be operating at a lower grade of thinking capacity.

Taking a break restores more than just how well we work

Taking a vacation, especially one that restricts or eliminates connection with our digital technology can quickly restore health, wellbeing, our sanity and relationships.

Removing ourselves from our phones and our computer screens when they’ve been our constant companion can be hard, but liberating once you’ve gotten over the initial withdrawal symptoms.

Taking a break provides the thinking space we need to think more deeply and reflect.
It deflects us from the constant instant gratification we seek from our updates and newsfeed that fragments our attention and adds to our sense of time poverty.

It reminds us of all those other things we enjoy doing – like walking, singing or dancing, hanging out with friends, listening to great music, watching a magnificent sunset or not doing terribly much at all.

It allows you to regain control of your own time, rather than being at the beck and call of someone else’s agenda.

We have such little time on this planet and it doesn’t have to be all sacrificed to the god of work. It’s time to step back, be grateful for everything we have and enjoy our life’s journey.

Isn’t that what makes us human?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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