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June 10, 2021

Is Working Long Hours at Home Killing You?

Abi Radford

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Working long hours isn't new – we've all stayed late at work to finish an upcoming project, or worked through a lunch break or two. But did you know that working long hours could actually be killing you?

Working Hours: What You Told Us

We recently asked our social media followers whether COVID-19 had affected their working hours, and we were shocked by some of the responses.

On Facebook, Olga Kosareva Polyviou said that, as a result of the pandemic, her hours "almost doubled." She told us that her colleagues' working patterns changed, and as a result she started receiving emails late in the evening and during weekends. Suddenly, her "... usual working hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. had shifted to from 9 a.m. to whatever time." And for her, this resulted in "... stress, tiredness, health issues… frustration and disappointment."

Olga isn't alone. In a poll we published on LinkedIn, 68 percent of respondents said they work longer hours now that they've moved to working from home. Only 9 percent said they work shorter hours.

The Dangers of Working Long Hours

Working longer hours isn't a phenomenon restricted to particular professions, demographics or locations. It's a global concern with dangerous consequences.

According to a new study by the World Health Organization, long working hours are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. The study warns that "... working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35 percent higher risk of a stroke and a 17 percent higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week."

These figures are terrifying. And, since the pandemic has altered the way that many people work across the globe, all these numbers will likely keep rising.

For many businesses, COVID-19 has meant a move away from office-based jobs to employees working remotely from home. Many employers have scaled back their workforces to save money, which has put extra strain on those left behind. Add in homeschooling, caregiving for vulnerable friends or family, and juggling other distractions such as pets, and it's not surprising that many people are working longer hours than when they were in the office – potentially putting their health at serious risk.

But What About the Positives?

Of course, there are good things about working from home – not least the reduction in time spent commuting, and the opportunities for more "focus time." For me, like many, remote working has been the norm for over a year, and my work-life balance has changed positively as a result.

I left my previous job at the end of March 2020, just as the U.K. was going into its first lockdown. Back then, my typical week looked standard to anyone working in my profession of marketing. I would commute into the city, sit at my desk in a small office for eight hours a day (occasionally I would run to the local café to grab lunch, which I would eat at my desk), and then travel home to fit in a gym session and dinner before going to bed. Several times a month I would drive across the country for all-day team meetings and events, staying in hotels overnight. Doesn't sound too bad, does it?

When I started working at Mind Tools, remote working was already in place as a result of COVID. I vowed not to let bad habits creep into my new job, so I made sure that I took breaks from my screen – going for a walk along the seafront, or having lunch with my sister who was home on furlough. I knew the parameters of my working day and I stuck to them, making sure that any unfinished jobs became a priority the following day rather than working late to complete them.

Fast forward a year. As a result of listening to its employees, our company has now moved to a flexible-working policy, meaning that we can work "anytime, anywhere." I've read books like "The Four-Hour Work Week," by Timothy Ferriss, and James Clear's "Atomic Habits," so this announcement was music to my ears!

Initially, I flexed my hours by taking a bit of extra time at lunchtime to go for a longer run – allowing me to make the most of daylight, rather than running in the dark after work.

More recently, however, I pushed flexible working somewhat further.

Real Remote Working!

My friend had recently relocated to Devon, and the opportunity for a visit arose when a space became available in another visiting friend's car. After agreeing my plans with my manager, I spent a week surfing, cycling, and eating out – all organized around my regular workload. I still worked my contracted hours, and I was considerate of my colleagues' timetables. But real remote working did wonders for my productivity!

I completed my work early in the morning, before regular meetings took hold of my day. I spent the middle of the day "playing outdoors," before checking in on work for a few hours in the evening. Each time I returned to my laptop I felt energized, focused, and ready to complete all the tasks on my To-Do List.

How to Avoid Working Longer Hours

Since working from home, I've learned that boundaries and self-discipline are so important. And that's even more true with flexible working. Being honest – with yourself as well as your colleagues – about the hours you're working helps you to manage your time. It also allows leaders to step in when you're overworking (or underworking).

One manager who has been doing just that is Diana Shields, who commented on Facebook that she has been challenging her team "... to make sure they take small breaks throughout the day," to ensure that they're not sitting at a desk for too long.

And in our Career Community Facebook group, Showkat Hussain added that, although he's found it hard to "... virtually manage the team and coordinate their activities," he's "... trying to play a key role to stop excessive workloads" – to protect his co-workers' well-being.

Work Smarter, Not Longer

One of the reasons why people work longer hours is to get more work done. This is especially true when a project deadline is looming. However, good productivity is key to getting everything done – and then getting away on time. If you can get organized, manage your time, take regular breaks, and improve your concentration and focus, there's no reason you can't thrive with a demanding work schedule.

Of course, not everyone can change their working hours – nor would everyone want to. But there are small things that you can do to reduce long hours in front of a computer.

In our Career Community Facebook group, Jeremy Stephens said that his hours haven't changed much due to remote working, but the way he spends his breaks has. He told us that, in place of "... another cup of coffee and small talk with a co-worker," he gives his wife a hug several times a day, and chats with her instead!

What's your experience of working from home during COVID? How have your working hours changed? What new habits have you adopted – to ensure that you're working more productively, rather than just more?

Please let us know your thoughts in the Comments section, below.

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