Stop overworking; start living

Aruna Sankaranarayanan writes on avoiding succumbing to the relentless pressure to maximise working hours
Last Updated : 08 April 2024, 23:11 IST
Last Updated : 08 April 2024, 23:11 IST

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Meetings, targets, reviews, growth curves, acquisitions, deadlines, productivity logs, sales figures—if your mind is consumed by work and nothing else, perhaps it’s time to review (oops, not that word again) or evaluate your life. If you’re working round the clock or are unable to disengage from work, even when you have some downtime, then you’re putting yourself at risk for physical and psychological issues.

Overworking is fairly common in our metrics-obsessed world and is even lauded as a virtue. While being drawn into this corporate frenzy may be tempting, overworking is pernicious to your health and well-being. How can you avoid succumbing to the relentless pressure to maximise your working hours?


First, know that overworking has tangible physical consequences. In Psychology Today, psychotherapist Joyce Marter warns that those who work more than 55 hours per week are at higher risk for stroke and cardiovascular disease than those who work 40 hours or less per week. Further, overworking can also lead to burnout, a syndrome marked by low energy, exhaustion, and impaired productivity at work.

In an article in Harvard Business Review, Alice Boyes provides guidelines on how to buck this unhealthy trend. First, you need to realise that overworking is not essential for a successful career. Though co-workers and peers may burn the midnight oil, longer hours don’t necessarily spell efficiency in the long run. At times, it might be hard to fight this pressure, which is driven by both internal and external forces. 

When a red-eyed colleague boasts of putting in sixteen straight hours, you may feel guilty for not pushing yourself hard enough. When you hear your boss commending your colleague for sweating it out, you feel you need to up your game. But Boyes strongly advocates not caving into these forces. If others choose to work extended hours, you need not follow suit. 

Boyes also suggests articulating your values and priorities. Is work the sole purpose of life, or do you envision a life beyond work? If yes, are you taking active steps to enact that vision? If you shelve that vision into a ‘future’ drawer and stick your nose into your work, your life goals may not be realised. You have to introspect, at every stage and turn of life, as to what you value the most. If your current life doesn’t include your top priorities, recalibrate how you allocate the finite amount of time you have on this planet.

Learn to say no

Further, you need to learn to say no. If a colleague requests you to send them some data late at night, don’t feel compelled to accede to their request immediately. Since working from home has become the norm, the lines between professional and personal spaces have blurred. But Boyes suggests that you need to stand firm and carve out time for your personal life. But what do you do if your boss expects prompt replies to emails sent at unearthly hours? Boyes cautions that this may be a sign of an “abusive work culture” and recommends switching teams, roles or even jobs. 

In a Forbes article, Jess Cording quotes neuropsychologist Julia DiGangi, who says that many behaviours are prompted by our emotions. The three “Overs,” as DiGangi calls overthinking, overgiving, and overworking, are often precipitated by anxiety. So, you must check in with yourself if you are plagued by self-doubt and uncertainty.

Overworking may be an unhealthy coping mechanism for dealing with angst-ridden thoughts. However, you’re not addressing or dealing with your underlying fears or core issues by working extended hours. So, instead of mindlessly clocking in more hours, try other anxiety-reducing strategies like exercising and meditating. You may also consider cognitive behaviour therapy for addressing your inner demons. 

You must also assess whether your entire identity is bound to your workplace. If your current organisation suddenly wound up tomorrow, will you be cast adrift, or will you be able to find your moorings again? You know what? You don’t have to wait for your company to shut shop for you to move on with your life. Find new bearings if your job doesn’t permit you to live a balanced life.

To circumvent overworking, bestselling author James Clear suggests on his website that you work in 90-minute chunks and then take short breaks. He also advocates injecting some creativity into your life. Hobbies like painting, playing an instrument or doing calligraphy can alleviate stress. Further, don’t compromise on sleep. If you don’t get the optimal eight hours at night, then at least take a nap in the day. 

Finally, you need to consider what ‘success’ means to you. Even if your workplace and peer group subscribe to a very narrow definition marked by power and privilege, know that you have the power to reimagine and experience success on your terms. While you may value career success, you also prize a rounded and rewarding life.

(The author is a psychologist and writer)

Published 08 April 2024, 23:11 IST

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