Overdrive is not the only gear: how to curb excessive work hours

Dec 04, 2013

Excessive work hours

A 2012 report in an official Chinese newspaper asserts that nearly 600,000 Chinese workers die from "exhaustion" each year.1 A function of the country's relentless economic growth? Perhaps, but news media around the world are increasingly reporting on what the Japanese call karoshi, or death from overwork.

No car or truck fleet owners would consistently push their vehicles to the limit, so how can we treat ourselves as well as or better than we treat our equipment? Read on to learn more about how overwork affects performance, and how we can prevent overwork while maintaining personal and organizational health and productivity.

Who's working too much

Here's a sampling of recent headlines on overwork-related fatalities. All three incidents received national and international coverage, and are the subject of ongoing investigation and assessment:

  • Advertising man, 24, dies of heart attack brought on by 'overwork'2 - Li Yuan died on the job in Beijing, China after working until 11:00 pm every night for a month at the office of a multi-national marketing communications company.
  • Did Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern Moritz Erhardt die of stress?3 - Moritz Erhardt was found dead in his shower, the water still running. Moritz had worked three days and nights in a row at a London, UK bank, returning home only to shower and change.
  • Intern's death after overnight shift sparks outcry4 - Andy Ferguson died in a head-on collision with a gravel truck after his car crossed into oncoming traffic. Andy was driving home after working a double shift at an Alberta radio station.

All three of these incidents involved young people, but excessive hours occur in every age group and industry sector. Even part-timers can work too much if they have multiple jobs or are juggling school and work.

The consequence: one major study found overtime workers have a 61% higher injury hazard rate compared to workers in jobs without overtime, after controlling for age, gender, occupation, industry, and region. And the longer the work schedule, the greater the risk of injury.

Workers' health can also suffer. Other studies found links between overtime and hypertension, cardiovascular disease, fatigue, stress, depression, musculoskeletal disorders, chronic infections, diabetes, general health complaints, and all-cause mortality.5

The good news is that employers are starting to pay attention. According to a 2011 survey conducted by Towers Perrin, almost 9 in 10 Canadian employers (89%) recognize that excessive workload is a problem. This represents a staggering 25% jump from 2009 to 2011 (from 64% to 89%).6

What triggers overwork

A number of work-related factors could be at play, either individually or in combinations. Examples include:

  • seasonal fluctuations, especially in the agriculture, hospitality, landscaping and retail sectors
  • doing more with less (work intensification)
  • sudden product or service orders
  • workforce changes, such as closures, resignations or firings
  • labour disruptions, such as strikes or lockouts
  • unrealistic production expectations.

How much is too much

From a physiological standpoint, it's hard to define exactly when we cross the threshold between reasonable and too much. Actual hours worked is a critical factor, but not the only one. And the more factors at play, the greater the risk people are working too hard. Here are some others:

  • nature of the work (repetitive or boring tasks are more tiring; so too working in extreme temperatures)
  • physical demands of the job, including wearing heavy protective clothing
  • amount of recovery time (rests, breaks, time between shifts)
  • amount of work-related stress.

Perhaps more important is the effect that too many hours can have on personal and organizational performance. In this instance, more is definitely not better.

Consequences of working beyond "normal" work hours

In broad terms, working too much, especially on an ongoing basis, can have a number of consequences:

  • greater risk of injury and incident
  • lower individual productivity
  • less time for commuting, eating, sleeping, and family and social time
  • less loyalty and engagement. Persistent overtime can lead employees to feel angry and resentful, and encourage them to start looking for more conducive work elsewhere.

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), fatigue can have these specific effects:

  • reduced
    • decision-making ability
    • ability to perform complex planning
    • communication skills
    • attention and vigilance
    • ability to handle stress
    • reaction time, in speed and thought
  • loss of memory or ability to recall details
  • failure to respond to changes in surroundings or information provided
  • greater
    • tendency for risk-taking
    • forgetfulness
    • likelihood of falling asleep while operating machinery or driving a vehicle
  • more
    • errors in judgment
    • sick time, presenteeism, absenteeism, turnover
    • medical costs
  • higher injury rates.

Here's another way of looking at it. Research that tested people in a fatigued state from continuous wakefulness against blood alcohol levels concluded that

  • 17 hours awake = a blood alcohol content of 0.05
  • 21 hours awake = a blood alcohol content of 0.08 (the legal limit in Canada)
  • 24-25 hours awake = a blood alcohol content of 0.10.7

How to reduce the risk of overtime and its consequences

Given the challenge in pinpointing how much overwork is too much, employers are better off focusing on what's the best way to optimize rather than maximize personal and organizational performance. Here are some suggestions distilled from a number of resources, including the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) and Health Canada.

  • Conduct a hazard assessment. In other words, analyze workloads to identify patterns and hazards. If overtime patterns emerge, consider ways to reduce overtime, such as redistributing workload, hiring more staff, or investing in more efficient practices. If employees work with hazardous substances, keep in mind that occupational exposure limits are calculated by hours worked.
  • Comply with legal limits. Ontario's Employment Standards Act sets out daily and weekly limits on hours of work, with a maximum of 48 hours a week. However, under certain conditions employers may require employees to work more hours. (For more on legal limits, see the Ministry of Labour resources listed under "How we can help.")
  • Create an overtime policy. Include such elements as
    • mandatory off-duty hours. Include time in which workers are encouraged to disconnected from work-related electronic devices.
    • flexible hours that help employees balance work with other demands on their time.
  • Train managers, supervisors and workers on the policy, as well as the safety and health consequences of overtime. The attitudes and expectations of managers, supervisors and co-workers can be critical in engendering a long hours culture where 'being present' is valued as a sign of commitment to work.
  • Foster a culture in which
    • employees are encouraged to disconnect from work calls and emails during off-duty hours
    • professional advancement doesn't depend on working overtime
    • employees are encouraged to come forward with time challenges
    • employees are not penalized if they refuse overtime.
  • If you are a senior decision-maker, then
    • be a role model in demonstrating healthy workplace practices
    • engage employees in decision-making
    • provide meaningful work opportunities
    • measure the extent to which work demands, work pace and work processes influence health and productivity within your organization, and correct as necessary
    • evaluate organizational policies and practices to ensure they are promoting employee efficiency and organizational effectiveness
    • reward behaviours that promote trust, open communication and worker autonomy
    • discourage behaviours that fuel high job demands and low job control
    • develop, implement and evaluate plans of action in support of employee and organizational wellbeing
  • If you supervise people, then
    • proactively discuss workplace priorities with employees, explaining how priorities were set and seeking input and consensus on what's required to achieve them
    • seek their input before making decisions that may affect their work or the way in which they do it
    • engage them in regular conversations about work expectations, workload, how to carry out tasks, and how to manage the pace of work
    • foster an environment in which they have the information, training and tools to perform their work
    • work with them to find ways they can use their full range of skills and abilities
    • take into account when scheduling work the physical demands of jobs, hazards such as chemical or noise exposures, and aspects of job design such as rest schedules
    • be aware of mental and emotional demands on employees. Work that requires constant attention or intense mental effort may be less suitable for extended workdays.
    • Monitor health and safety by looking for any changes in injury rates, health levels, and absenteeism rates.

How we can help

WSPS offers a number of resources aimed at helping employers create a healthy, productive workplace, including these downloads:

  • Creating Healthy Workplaces
  • Psychosocial Risk Management: What Every Business Manager Should Know
  • The Business Case for a Healthy Workplace

Also available: instructor-led training - The 1% Solution: Being a Healthy Workplace Champion (1/2 day)

WSPS consultants can work with you to

  • assess the impact of current workload on employees
  • develop an action plan specific to your business
  • integrate health and safety solutions into your existing business practices in a way that sustains or enhances organizational performance while promoting worker health and well-being

These Ministry of Labour resources can help you ensure compliance with rules for hours of work:

Additional reading


1 Mail Online (Daily Mail), May 16, 2013;

2 Ibid

3 The Daily Beast, November 22, 2013

4 CBC News, September 9, 2013

5 "The impact of overtime and long work hours on occupational injuries and illnesses: new evidence from the United States," Occup Environ Med 2005;62:588-597 doi:10.1136/oem.2004.016667

6 "Towers Watson Study: Investing in workforce health generates higher productivity," November 21, 2011

7 "Fatigue, alcohol and performance impairment," Nature 388, 235 (17 July 1997)