The Japanese have a word for ‘overwork’ called Karōshi (過労死). According to them, people who work themselves to exhaustion have a greater chance of passing away early. They are at a higher risk of suffering from a heart attack and stroke due to stress and poor diet.
A new study published by the Melbourne Insitute says that it is not ideal for people to work for five days a week – that is if you’re 40-years-old plus at least.
A strict work ethic is deeply ingrained in American culture, alongside the belief that hard work will always be rewarded with success. Also, to be able to keep up with the costs of their lifestyles and afford their living expenses, people are compelled to hustle harder every single day.
The research says that people over 40 years old are at top productivity when they only work for three days a week.
So what proves that a more relaxed work schedule is better?
The study looked at the work habits of 3,000 Australian men and 3,500 Australian women. The participants underwent a variety of tests to show their mental and cognitive abilities while working. Examiners also evaluated the subjects’ memory capacity and executive and abstract reasoning while comparing their general work habits and schedules.
The cognitive exams included matching letters and numbers under time pressure, reading aloud, and reciting lists of numbers backwards.
The results of the study showed that the group of people who worked for an average of 25 hours per week performed best. On the other hand, performance decreased when work hours went beyond 25 hours a week, which is attributed to increased fatigue and stress. At 55 hours, participants performed the worst – at par with those who were unemployed or are of retirement age.
Geraint Johnes, an economics professor at Lancaster University Management School, noted that:
“What the authors find is that cognitive functioning improves up to the point at which workers work 25 hours a week and declines thereafter. Actually, at first the decline is very marginal, and there is not much of an effect as working hours rise to 35 hours per week. Beyond 40 hours per week, the decline is much more rapid.”
“Many countries are going to raise their retirement ages by delaying the age at which people are eligible to start receiving pension benefits. This means that more people continue to work in the later stages of their life.”, says Professor Colin McKenzie from Keio University, one of the three authors of the research.
McKenzie says that work can be a double-edged sword – it can stimulate brain activity, but when done for long, it can also induce fatigue and stress, which can potentially damage a person’s cognitive functions. He also noted that full-time work equating to 40 hours a week is still better than no work in terms of maintaining healthy cognitive functioning, but it doesn’t maximize the positive effects of work.
“We point out that differences in working hours are important for maintaining cognitive functioning in middle-aged and elderly adults. This means that, in middle and older age, working part-time could be effective in maintaining cognitive ability.”, he added.
Overwork can cause a lot of stress, which has the ability to change our brains physically. Christopher Bergland wrote in Psychology Today that:
“Cortisol is believed to create a domino effect that hard-wires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes predisposed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight,”, he wrote.
When the body is under chronic amounts of stress, our brain interprets it as constantly being in a dangerous situation. This can lead to grave health problems such as anxiety disorders, depression, difficulty sleeping, and other physical illnesses.
The conclusion of the study is that working full-time is highly detrimental for people aged over 40. But is a three-day work week the real solution? The answers are still uncertain, but what is clear is that we need to find more ways to achieve work-life harmony so that we can rest and de-stress while still being productive in the workplace, lessening the risk of acquiring serious health issues in the future.