Over worked business man at desk Pivotal HR Solutions Blog

“Dying for a paycheque?” — good HR Managmement can breathe new life into your team

With power personalities such as Elon Musk advocating 100-hour weeks — and many real-life examples of 100-hour work weeks, notably amongst software developers — HR managers have to be careful not to literally “work their teams to death.”

Chances are, if you are a manager, you are one of the ones being “worked to death.” How can an overworked manager develop HR systems to address this significant health issue? Often a cultural change is needed. [Tips below.] Sometimes, it’s best to outsource HR to experts who can facilitate healthy and productive changes. Even if you aren’t directly concerned with the “health” of employees, as a team-leader — in today’s competitive job market — you need to focus on team-retention.


Sleeping at desk Pivotal HR Solutions Blog
Over work is a health risk to team members.


In a breakthrough book, Dying for a Paycheque by Standford University organizational behaviour professor Jeffrey Pfeffer argues that

“Some 150,000 deaths in the United States each year, and as many as 1 million in China, can be attributed to overwork.” [1] It’s not just stress that is killing employees, either; most of these workers have desk jobs, with extended hours contributing to “Sedentary lifestyles, sleeplessness, and stress—all provoked by damaging work cultures and economic anxieties.”

The high cost of living contributes to these “economic anxieties” and is one of the main reasons for long work hours (including people who feel compelled to work two jobs “to make ends meet.”)

No, this isn’t just a “turn of phrase,” you literally can “work yourself to death.” For each team member, what is the statistical breakpoint where you put your team in danger? It varies on each team member’s health and personal stress level, but most studies have used the “55-hour” work benchmark. For example, the European Heart Journal:

“Studies suggest that people who work long hours are at increased risk of stroke, but the association of long working hours with atrial fibrillation, the most common cardiac arrhythmia and a risk factor for stroke, is unknown. We examined the risk of atrial fibrillation in individuals working long hours (greater than 55 per week) and those working standard 35–40 h/week.”


Overworked sleeping on pile of work Pivotal HR Solutions Blog
Over work — usually cited as more than 55 hours per week — contributes to poor health.


Who really works more than 60 hours?

Not many work Elon Musk’s 100-hour work weeks. But many do work 60-80 hour weeks. Fifty-four percent of Americans even give up half of their holiday time each year. [1]

It’s not just entrepreneurs, who work these long hours — the likes of Elon Musk who claim this as a secret of success. Many “driven” employees work these extended hours, either for the short term on a tight deadline or due to time management issues from team managers, supervisors and HR Managers. Some “entrepreneurial” leaders claim they thrive on 4-hours sleep a night, which is a significant health risk.

Long term, very few people could survive line on 100-hours a week. Even 68 hours a week — the previous legal maximum in South Korea — was lowered recently to 52, due to health risks.

The big health factors

The key factors may seem obvious, but some are less-so:

  • Stress from long hours
  • Lack of activity: sedentary lifestyle weakens heart, organs and the immune system: researchers found that those “who were sedentary for more than 13 hours a day were twice as likely to die prematurely as those who were inactive for 11.5 hours.” [1]
  • Lack of sleep, a major “killer” in health terms
  • Karoshi — “the sudden deaths of ostensibly healthy people from periods of intense, unbroken work.” (Famously, a recent case of a 31-year old woman who died after working 159 hours of overtime in one month.” [1]
  • Blue light and eye-damage: constant exposure to our digital screens damages eyes, and make it difficult to sleep, resulting in toxic chemical reactions on our retinas. [1]
  • Heart issues: most vulnerable, due to the combination of stress, lack of sleep, and lack of exercise.
  • Fifty-five hours a week maximum benchmark: The European Heart Journal found that people who worked more than 55 hours a week were more likely to develop blood clots, stroke or heart conditions. [2]
  • Depression can lead to death. Lack of sleep and stress often lead to depression.
  • Reducing your sperm count: over 47 hours a week has been linked to reduced sperm count. [3]

Who manages the “over-workers”?

Some people work long hours because they are on punishing short-term deadlines. Others are driven to work long hours through other factors:

  • addiction to work (yes, it’s a thing)
  • competitiveness
  • internal company culture and expectations
  • external stress, such as home issues or financial pressures.

Regardless of the reason, HR Managers and team supervisors should pro-actively monitor and try to “coach” teams to become more efficient and productive. No organization can thrive creatively for long on sustained long hours at the desk.

In your company, who manages these requirements? It should be an HR Manager, with expertise in these health and productivity issues who maintains the standards of time allocation. It isn’t always in their control. Some employees are just driven to work, work, work — it’s the “modern” way of life.


Over worked business man at desk Pivotal HR Solutions Blog


We get off easy in North America, with our standard 40-hour work weeks. In the USA, the average employee works 47 hours, as compared to 35 in Germany. Many workers give up their holidays to work. In many countries, such as Korea, work weeks are longer; and, as is shown statistically, in countries with extended work weeks, the risk of “working to death” is higher. The highest countries, in terms of average per capita work weeks, include: Mexico, Costa Rica and South Korea, Russia and Japan. Korea, for example, made headlines after the National Assembly cut maximum work weeks to 52 hours from the previous 68.

What can HR Managers do?

One of the latest HR trends is rewarding project milestones and creative contributions regardless of hours worked. Making a big deal of rewarding efficiency — rather than dogged dedication to desk-time — can be the number-one way to promote a culture change for healthier living.

Other important tips:

  • Measure: if you don’t know how many hours people are working, build a mechanism for reporting: not to punish under-workers but to coach over-workers
  • Reduce sitting time: consider walking meetings, walking desks and more frequent break times
  • Compensation: rewards and kudos in your workplace should be rebuilt around goal-achievement and creative solutions; all time-oriented (i.e. “the office’s hardest worker” rewards should be removed from the office culture.
  • Talk team-members out of giving up their holidays
  • Have one-on-one sessions and interviews: make them positive and lifestyle oriented. Coach teams on going home early, sleeping well and exercise.
  • Consider “nap” break rooms and encourage office naps
  • Studies have shown that 10 minutes break every hour is healthier than 20-30 minute breaks morning and afternoon.
  • Consider adding exercise equipment to the break room.
  • Consider a “blue light” stratetgy by adding “warm spectrum” lighting to your office and adding colour spectrum to computer screeens

Need more help? Consider consulting with the HR Management experts at Pivotal Solutions. Use our handy contact form:

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[1] Popular Science “Yes, you really can work yourself to death.”
[2] European Heart Journal: Long working hours a risk factor for atrial fibrillation: a multi-cohort study.
[3] “Working bad hours might decrease your sperm count” Esquire

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