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Why you shouldn’t push yourself too hard at work

Posted by
Moya Crockett
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Consistently working overtime or investing huge amounts of effort into your job isn’t good for you – or your career. Here, Stylist explores the case for taking it easy.

Our culture places a huge amount of value on hard work. Conversations with friends often devolve into competitive discussions about how busy and exhausted we are, and it’s near-impossible to scroll through Instagram without being exhorted to “rise and grind”, “keep hustling” or “work hard, play hard”.

When it comes to work, it’s easy to assume that the only way to get noticed – not to mention keep on top of your never-ending to-do list – is to keep grafting harder and harder, and putting in longer and longer hours. More than 5 million UK employees put in a total of 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime in 2018, according to recent research by the TUC (Trades Union Congress), giving their employers £32.7 billion of free labour. For women in high-pressured jobs, taking on extra projects and staying late in the office can feel like just part and parcel of what you signed up for.

But research suggests that regularly putting in too much effort at work could have serious repercussions for your wellbeing and your professional performance – meaning that it could be better, sometimes, to just cut yourself some slack. 

“I may as well just stay here until morning,” she thought

In one 2018 study, researchers at London’s City University looked at two different ways we put effort into our jobs: working additional hours (“overtime work”) and putting more physical and/or mental exertion into tasks (“work intensity”). They analysed data from more than 50,000 employees working in all available industries across 36 European countries – including the UK – to see how overtime work and work intensity related to stress.

Overall, both overtime and work intensity were found to be associated with stress, fatigue and decreased job satisfaction. People who frequently worked overtime or pushed themselves to the limit professionally also tended to view their career prospects less positively and lacked a sense of job security and recognition – suggesting that they felt their hard work wasn’t even noticed.

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The researchers also discovered that putting in lots of overtime could decrease the quality of one’s work, which could lead to “inferior career-related outcomes” in the long run.

In other words, you might actually do a better job – and impress your boss more – if you left work on time every once in a while.

“I’m staying for four more minutes, Kevin, and then I’m outta here”

Interestingly, it seems as though there may be a class dynamic at play in our relationships with overtime. The researchers found that people working in office-based “white collar” jobs were more likely than manual “blue collar” workers to believe that overtime work was a sign of how valuable they are as an employee.

In addition, people in high-skilled professions often felt like they worked overtime by choice. They insisted that they stayed late in the office of their own volition, rather than because they had been ordered to by their employer.

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Quiz: what’s your work-life balance type?

Of course, it’s great to feel passionate about your job, and putting lots of effort into your career is an admirable trait. But it’s also important to remember that pushing yourself too hard for too long can have unwanted side effects. Research published in the journal Career Development International in 2018 found that many employees who were highly engaged in and motivated by their work were also exhausted and ready to quit. Career burnout can also lead to a whole host of mental and physical health issues, including prolonged fatigue, headaches, depressive symptoms and insomnia.

There’s nothing wrong with staying late every once in a while if you have an important report to finish or a sudden work-related crisis to deal with. But if you’re regularly working yourself into the ground when you don’t absolutely have to, try being kinder to yourself.

Make an effort to leave the office on time, and remember that not everything on your to-do list has to be done today. In the words of Serena Williams: “There’s always tomorrow.”

A version of this article was first published on 8 August 2018. It has been updated throughout with new research. 

Images: Getty Images

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Contributing Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk and Deputy Editor of Stylist Loves, Stylist's daily email newsletter. Carrying a bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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