What are the dangers of working too hard?

Monday, May 14, 2007
Do you get home late, your dinner's in the microwave, the kids want you to play three different games at once and when you do finally crash into bed, your brain's racing at a hundred miles an hour?

Statistics tell us that apart from the Koreans, Australians work longer hours than anyone else in the world — an average of 1855 hours per year.

So what are the health dangers of all those extra hours away from home and family?

Most Australians toil away for 36 hours a week for every working week of the year — and that's the average.

Plenty of people do a lot more. Take Harry Brosca, for instance. Harry's been working at the family restaurant in Melbourne's Lygon Street for 33 years.

"I actually run around the place with my head chopped off, run around making sure everyone's okay," he says.

Yes, Harry's busy all right, and what about his hours?

On an average week he works 70 hours in four days! What's this doing to his blood pressure? And when does he have time for exercise?

"When I get home, basically I just sit down, read the paper, watch TV, sit back and relax. Nine out of 10 I fall asleep on the couch and don't even make it to bed," Harry says.

If Harry keeps this up he could be a candidate for an early grave. It's just as well he's not in Japan — they've got a name for it, says psychologist, Maureen Dollard.

"In Japan, the phenomenon of working hard, and that overwork leading to death, has actually been given a name, Karoshi. This is an amazing event that's occurred in the last 10 years or so in Japan and they have 10,000 deaths a year due to Karoshi."

What do you think about that, Harry?

"I know I have to get fitter and I just think that I'm not ready for it just yet. I know I can get away with it for a bit longer and then eventually I will have to start," he says.

Let's see what his doctor, Lesley Seow thinks about that for a plan. She's going to give Harry a general health check-up. For starters it's blood pressure and the news isn't good.

Dr Seow: Now Harry your pressure is 140 over ninety.

That's way too high for a 49 year-old who's already on blood pressure tablets!

Next up is a cardiovascular fitness test. If Harry was in tip-top shape, after this exercise, his heart rate would return to normal in about three minutes.

Harry: A quick recovery or not so quick?
Dr Seow: Not so quick

So he's not in tip top shape, and at 5.7 his cholesterol is heading for the danger level too.

"He's a bit overweight … that's put him in the obese range," adds Dr Seow.

In short, Harry's a sitting duck for heart attacks and strokes.

But what about a high-powered corporate couple? What sort of trouble can they get themselves into?

Our second test couple is Victorians Jackie Barnes and Robert Parker.

Robert is a commercial pilot: "I fly lots of different aeroplane types. There's no routine to my job: I work a lot of different hours, we work mornings, nights, weekends. We can pretty much work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, anytime of the day or night.

He can sometimes be away from wife Jackie for up to four months at a time. She's got plenty to keep her occupied though, as the managing director of her own company, providing consultancy services to the airline industry.

It's a high-pressured job: "After I've had a stressful event like some form of confrontation or something like that, I'll typically get the shakes. I like to think I'm a bit of an adrenalin junkie and that's what drives me on. If we're going to win a job, the same thing will happen — I'll get the shakes from excitement.

Dr Tim Stewart is a leader in the field of occupational medicine. What does he think about Jackie?

"Some people thrive on this. They thrive on the adrenalin push, the surge, the deal and everything that goes with it."

So what's this adrenalin rush doing to Jackie and Robert's health?

First, we're going to check out Jackie's stress levels during a typical day in the office.

We've hired Jason Blair to carry out the tests and analyse the results.

Jackie starts out well but when she's in a monthly meeting with the company accountant her stress levels aren't too good, and her heart rate has sky rocketed!

"You've actually maxed out at 117 beats — somewhere between 60 and 80 would be good," says Jason.

Yes, Jackie's a workplace stress victim. But what does Dr Stewart make of it?

"Both of them actually have pretty good blood pressure."

Dr Stewart (to Jackie): Your result is ninety over sixty, which is excellent.

They're not overweight: "You have an excellent body mass index — you are actually in the desired range of 20 to 25," says Dr Stewart to Jackie.

You see, since stacking on the kilos over the last four years, they've recently made a real effort to lose weight and exercise more.

The key difference between Jackie and Robert and Harry is that they've recognised the problem and done something about it.

Fortunately there's a simple solution. The doctor says that if Harry exercises for 30 minutes a session, five times a week, and eats better, his weight will come down and he'll be back in the safety zone.

To do it, he's going to have to make time — that probably means cutting back his working day by an hour or so.

If he doesn't, other important parts of your life could go belly up — like relationships!

"There's a lot of research at the moment about the spill-over effects of stress at work into the family life. And if you're too exhausted, you have less time to contribute to relationships, your libido may be reduced as a result of working long hours," says Maureen Dollard.

So slaving away at work can kill off your love life too. Studies have also shown it'll increase your road rage, and rage in general.

And it actually shrinks your brain!

"Work stress can affect memory, for example, because the hippocampus, which is a structure important to memory, can be reduced in size in people that are exposed to chronic stress — that's work stress over time," Maureen says.

The best way to deal with the build up of stress is 30 minutes of enough activity to get you out of puff, five times a week as a minimum.

The good news for Harry is he's gone and bought himself a bike!

Fast facts

  • Some people say that a good way to deal with anger is to vent it rather than keeping it all bottled up inside. But is that true? Well, it seems like a good idea, but no. In fact, a study carried out by a US psychologist found that punching a pillow or other vigorous exercise actually increased aggression levels. So forget the pillow rage and take up tai chi or yoga, listen to music or have a good laugh instead. They're the real stress busters.

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