We live in a culture that celebrates hard work. People will gleefully boast about spending eighty-plus hours in the office to bring home the bacon. It makes them look tough, smart, and successful.
This type of lifestyle, though, is taking its toll. Burnout is a massive issue for our society, with many people walking around like zombies, pumping themselves up on coffee, and somehow trying to make it through the day.
This type of existence clearly is not what evolution designed for our biology. Yes – work has always been a part of life. But thanks to our hyper-competitive culture in the west, we often take it to extremes.
Hunter-gatherer populations do not have the same problem. Observers note that they usually do between four and six hours of work per day outside of starvation situations. Most get up at dawn, collect food until midday, and then spend the rest of the day doing fun stuff.
Now compare that to the modern westerner. You start work at dawn (including getting ready for it), and then work in the afternoon and evening. Then at the weekend, you carry on working – or, at least, thinking about it.
The result of this is a sense that you never have time to stop, sit down and relax. You always have to do something. And even if you complete all tasks and chores, you still feel like you need to do something. Spending your days off doing very little seems like a waste. You earnt all that money – now you feel like you should be using it.
You might think that hard work only has ramifications for how you feel right now. But it can also lead to profound changes in brain structure – something that can damage you long-term.
Shrinking Brain Volume
Many people living in western countries have significantly smaller brains by the end of their forties than they do at the start of their twenties. You would think that the reasons for this would come down to aging, but researchers don’t believe that’s the case. In their view, brain shrinkage happens because of the effects of the stress chemicals coursing through them. When the body is high on cortisol and adrenaline, it can’t form new connections or networks. Thus, its ability to repair itself becomes suppressed, and eventually, the owner of the brain starts experiencing cognitive issues.
After many years of stress, the effects on the mind are apparent for all to see. The afflicted person may struggle to recall specific words or find themselves forgetting promises they make to people. These issues then hamper their capacity for productivity. Soon their careers suffer.
The Sleep Component
Hectic work schedules are one of the leading reasons people visit their sleep doctor. Being on the go all the time deprives the brain of the time and space it needs to switch off at night. People find themselves hyperstimulated around bedtime, unable to flop off when they hit the sack. This feature of insane work schedules then compounds the problem of stress, making people less well-rested too.
We still don’t know precisely why people need to sleep as much as they do, but researchers are now keenly aware of the symptoms of sleep depreciation. Rambling sentences, hallucinations, and slurred speech are all common in people who haven’t gotten sufficient shut-eye.
The University of Pennsylvania has done work trying to quantify extreme sleep loss. Severe disorders include staying up for more than two consecutive nights or getting less than six hours of sleep for two weeks on the trot.
What’s scary is the sheer number of people whose sleep quality falls below these thresholds. For instance, in Japan, a country with one of the most toxic work cultures in the world, sleep deprivation was behind more than half of the country’s instances of high blood pressure.
Why Your Work Schedule Will Catch Up With You
We’re all tempted to work harder and longer than we should because we want the status, money, and rewards that come with it. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that makes it too easy to take this too far. People will actively boast and brag about how much work they do, and it makes us feel as though we should keep up.
However, the truth is that the fallout from working too hard is often worse than the consequences of not working hard enough. Sleep seven hours, and give yourself at least one day per week when you’re not thinking about the office.