21st Century Work Is Killing You

Rachel Kuzma/Thrillist
Rachel Kuzma/Thrillist

On some level, the human endeavor of “work” has always been fraught with peril. Back in the days when that peril meant hunting for food while fending off predators who were hunting you for food, the hazards of the workplace were fairly clear.

Today’s typical office drone doesn’t face the self-evident dangers of a hunter-gatherer, or a coal miner, for that matter, but that seemingly innocuous 9-to-5 can still be deadly -- and not just in a “my boss is really killing me this week” kind of way, either. Depending on how you’re handling yourself and your job, working yourself to death can be more than just a euphemism.

Rachel Kuzma/Thrillist

Sitting: deadlier than HIV (apparently)

You’ve heard it before, but it’s true. Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic and the inventor of the treadmill desk, famously asserted, “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.”

Sitting: deadlier than HIV! That’s not the kind of “workplace hazards” poster most offices have hanging in an inconspicuous corner near the supply closet. But maybe it should be, because the warnings tend to go unheeded despite the press this topic receives.

That standing desk ain’t gonna help, both in terms of health and how much your co-workers respect you.

Consider that workers who get the job done from a desk spend about five hours and 41 minutes per day sitting, putting them at a dramatically increased risk of chronic diseases and conditions -- from heart disease to cancer to obesity and liver disease. So yes, sitting IS killing you!

Even worse news? That standing desk ain’t gonna help, both in terms of health and how much your co-workers respect you. Dr. Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell, has said that breaking up activity throughout the day -- not simply choosing to stand instead of sit -- is the trick to avoiding these myriad dangers. “Sitting all day and standing all day are both bad for you,” he explained, which means that a standing desk is only making you the most despised person in your office, not tacking years onto your life. Moving around is more important, and no one does enough of it.

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Lack of sleep is an epidemic, and work is to blame

Going to the office anytime before about 11am totally sucks, and scientists agree. They’ve announced their consensus that work starts too early… and yet, none of the world’s bosses have acted on this news. Come on, it’s SCIENCE!

Moreover, 30% of US workers are sleeping less than the suggested eight hours. The Centers for Disease Control, when they’re not suppressing contagions, calls lack of sleep in this country a “public health epidemic.”

There’s a reason the PowerPoint you tried to finish at 3am totally sucks -- you’re throwing the worst version of yourself at a task.

It’s easy to dismiss these stats by reasoning that they don’t apply to the talented, ambitious go-getters who are actually going to DO something with their lives (like you!). Also, both Goldman and Sachs would be pissed if they found out a recent college grad was sleeping more than three hours a night, because that’s simply an inefficient use of labor and time.

But sacrificing sleep for the purposes of productivity is nothing more than a myth: even if shaving off those hours to get shit done seems like a good idea in the short term, it will screw over your long-term productivity. There’s a reason the PowerPoint you tried to finish at 3am totally sucks -- you’re throwing the worst version of yourself at a task.

Even more than killing your productivity, lack of sleep is killing you. Since sleep deprivation heightens stress, it can lead to health risks such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and even mood disorders, all of which would make work more unpleasant than it already is.

Rachel Kuzma/Thrillist

Work stresses you out, and stress kills

The vast majority of Americans say that work is a significant source of stress in their lives. That’s relatively obvious, since work is characterized by demanding bosses, annoying co-workers, unreasonable assignments, bad coffee, a terrible commute... the list goes on.

But stress doesn’t just screw up your head; it actually compromises your immune system. No wonder you find yourself sniffling and sneezing during the week of your mid-year review, or any other stressful work milestone.

It turns out that stress from your job leads to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and decreased mental health.

Now add to the mix this scary new data: researchers from Harvard and Stanford (they should know) considered the effects of 10 common job stressors -- including long hours, job insecurity, lack of health insurance -- on the body and mind.

Their results showed that -- surprise! -- work stress is literally killing you. LITERALLY. It turns out that stress from your job leads to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and decreased mental health. Furthermore, they confirmed that all of these health risks can wind up killing about 120,000 people each year, which, yikes. That’s a lot of people.

Rachel Kuzma/Thrillist

Work-related depression: no joke

Dr. Eugene Baker recently told CNN, “A job can be a source of meaning and social support, which can provide a buffer against depression for some people,” and for some people, work can be a welcome distraction when other areas of life aren’t going so well.

Unfortunately, jobs can only be genuinely supportive if, and only if, you like your boss, your co-workers, and the work you’re doing. And have you met people’s bosses and coworkers, and seen the kind of work they do? They’re not always all that great!

It’s actually better to be unemployed than to work at a job you hate.

When you whine about the awful people at work, and the awful work itself, some people might tell you, “You’re lucky to even have a job,” which is true and a good point. However! A new study says that working the wrong job can do more harm than good. “People who moved from being unemployed into poor-quality jobs were significantly more likely to be depressed at follow-up than those people who remained unemployed,” explained Dr. Diana Leach, who led the study. So it’s actually better to be unemployed than to work at a job you hate. Which is kind of reassuring, in a way! 

But isn't work SUPPOSED to be awful?

For those old-schoolers who might think, “Well, hating your job isn’t the worst thing in the world; plenty of people dislike working,” mental health isn’t just a bonus on your salary. It’s a necessity.

Again, this isn’t merely a matter of happiness being preferable to sadness. The US suicide rate has risen notably in the past few years, claiming an annual average of 36,000 lives, and between the years 2003 and 2010, a total of 1,719 people committed suicide in the workplace, which is tough to imagine. Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health discovered that while the rate of workplace suicide dropped from 1.5 per million workers in 2003 to 1.2 per million in 2007, the rate then rose again to 1.8 per million in 2010.

Wow, so that's a real downer! Suicide is complex and can't be attributed solely to shitty jobs, but with numbers rising, it's time to start paying more attention to well-being at work.

Rachel Kuzma/Thrillist

America works way more than other countries, and pays the price for it

You may have heard of a new labor deal in France that encourages about 250,000 employees in the tech and consulting sectors to “unplug” from work-related business after 6pm. Or perhaps you know about the fact that the Swedish government has been debating the possibility of a strict 35-hour workweek to boost well-being.  

Americans have no such labor movement or efforts on the part of our government to reduce our working hours. USA! USA! USA! Rather than serving as a necessary break, vacations can be perceived as laziness, or inefficiency; full-time employed Americans get an average of 8.1 paid days off after their first year at a given job, while countries like Brazil and Finland give their workers 30 paid days off per year (SIX WEEKS!), plus public holidays. Thirty is significantly more than eight, in case math isn’t really your thing.

The US remains the only industrialized nation in the entire world that doesn’t have laws requiring employers to provide workers with paid vacation.

These aren’t just free-wheeling, liberal countries who have no interest in work at all. For instance, French workers certainly have the freedom to work 35+ hours. They’re just legally required to be compensated for overtime if they do. What a crazy socialist idea, compensating for overtime.

But it works. In fact, French workers end up clocking about 39.5 hours per week, which is pretty reasonable, especially since they also get all that vacation. Go ahead, start Googling “how to become a documented worker in France.” By contrast, the US remains the only industrialized nation in the entire world that doesn’t have laws requiring employers to provide workers with paid vacation, because, presumably, vacations are for workers who just can't hack it in America.

Ironically, our stereotypical judgment of French people as more relaxed, but lazier than Americans is nothing more than a stereotype. The World Bank recently published a report on the economic effects of different labor regulations, concluding that benefits like paid time off and limited work hours do not measurably affect the economic efficiency of a nation. “The joke’s on us!” you realize, while crying at your desk.

Rachel Kuzma/Thrillist

Should everyone just move to Europe?

So work is lethal. Americans spend way too much time sitting and stressing out, and not enough time taking vacations and sleeping. Does this mean you’re doomed to a miserable life of toil, followed by an early death in a country that only wanted to use you for your labor?

No. There are some basic steps you can take to make sure you don’t die just yet.

1. Take breaks during the day

Breaks actually keep you more mentally alert than grinding away without getting up all day. Taking a walk will increase your blood circulation, to counteract those negative effects of sitting too much. In fact, the US life expectancy could increase by two years if we reduced our cultural habit of “excessive sitting” to less than three hours a day. Imagine what you could do with two extra years of life! (Note: don’t spend it working more.)

2. Make relaxation a part of your daily life

You don’t have to spend weeks at a mountain retreat to cash in on some of meditation’s benefits. Setting aside just a few minutes per day when you do nothing but breathe can help you feel more clear and calm, and also may even lower blood pressure and strengthen the immune system.

But if meditating isn’t for you, try to find something else that decreases your stress levels during the day. Stroll to a nearby park (being in nature is scientifically proven to make us more resilient to stress). Hell, treat yourself to a monthly massage (science says so, yet again). Don’t sit idly by as your health deteriorates!

3. Go on vacation (and enjoy it)

The Harvard Business Review recently reported that people who take all of their vacation days are more likely to get promoted or get a raise. Vacations also make you healthier, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and mental illness, and increasing creativity and vitality. So use every last one of those eight days!

Dr. Jessica de Bloom, an organizational psychologist, is on a research team that studies the best way to get the health benefits of a vacation, and the key turns out to be regularity and frequency. “Holidays work more like sleep," according to Dr. de Bloom. "You need regular recovery from work in order to stay healthy in the long run."

Don’t quit your job; modify it

Long story short? Don’t quit your job just yet. You probably need the money, and sacrificing shelter and food are more likely to kill you than feeling stressed out at work.

That said, don’t take stress, or lack of sleep, lightly. Prioritize relaxation, vacation, rest, fun, and frequent breaks. It may feel anti-American, and it may appear lazy, but really, it’s the smartest thing you can do -- for your sanity AND survival.

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Charlotte Lieberman is a writer who takes plenty of breaks throughout the day. Follow her @clieberwoman.