Overworking: The Effects on Mental Health - man holding head and looking down at laptop

Overworking: The Effects on Mental Health

Haeli Harris
March 3, 2023
October 9, 2022

There's nothing like a long day of work.

We brag about it. We attach our worth and identity to it. We feel that it makes us great employees.

But... does it? And is it really worth it?

Overworking has some detrimental effects on mental health and doesn't necessarily lead to better productivity. Read on to learn what overworking is, how many people actually overwork, the consequences of overworking, and how to deal with it as an employee and an employer.  

What is Overworking?

The definition of overwork can be hard to pinpoint. We all have different thresholds for how much work is too much.

According to Wikipedia, overwork occurs when someone works "too hard, too much, or too long." It can mean working beyond your mental or physical capacity, leading to negative effects of overworking such as mental health issues.

Knowing what overworking means for you takes self-awareness and some self-reflection. Some common signs of being overworked can help you determine if you are working too much.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine if you are overworked:

  • Does every day feel like a bad workday?
  • Am I tired all the time? Is it hard to get my energy back?
  • Do I feel that I am not doing enough if I don't work long days?
  • Does work feel dull all of a sudden?
  • Do I have a lot of anxiety or stress around work that bleeds into my personal life?
  • Do I feel cynical about work?

Here are some more signs of being overworked from an employer's perspective:

  • Employee engagement is low
  • Employees are making mistakes regularly
  • Tasks aren't getting completed
  • Employees call out sick often or arrive late to meetings
  • Employees leave their video off during Zoom calls
  • Employees are moody or having trouble getting along

Related: 5 Major Signs of Employee Burnout and How to Address Them

According to a Gallup survey in 2014, the average American full-time employee worked 47 hours per week.

  • 21% worked 50 to 59 hours
  • 11% worked 41 to 49 hours
  • 42% worked 42 hours
  • 8% worked less than 40 hours

And that was in 2014! The average working week is likely longer with the huge spike in remote work. According to SHRM, 45% of people say that they work more hours during the week than they did in the office. 70% say they now work some on the weekends.

No wonder burnout is through the roof.

How Long is Too Long?

Studies have found that productivity drops sharply at the 49-hour mark. At that point, it's probably not worth working any longer, in most cases.

In fact, people that work 70 hours a week hardly accomplish more than people that work 56 hours per week in the long run.

The Consequences of Overworking Employees

We all know deep down that overworking is bad for us. Yet, we seldom do anything to address it. It is normal to feel like we have to overwork to keep our jobs, get a promotion, or succeed in life. But that is not necessarily true!

Activity does not equal accomplishment. Sometimes the best thing you can do is take a break and return to work later.

Overworking and its Effects on Mental Health

In 2019, 94% of American workers reported experiencing stress at work.  Overworking leads to burnout—which isn't something to be trifled with. Burnout can lead to:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Tension headaches or migraines
  • Emptiness or lack of interest in work or home life
  • Worsened sleep
  • Bad habits like substance abuse

It is all about balance. When work starts to take over your life, things start to fall apart. 76% of workers say that their workplace stress impacts their personal relationships, and 66% say that their stress caused sleep deprivation.

Suddenly, there is little time to spend with family, take care of yourself, or do the things you enjoy. There's less time to spend with friends or be a part of groups outside of work.

When work rules your life, it becomes your identity and your purpose. But there is so much more to life than work. We need balance so we can take care of our mental health and wellbeing.

Long working hours and mental health are hard to sustain together for a long period of time. Burnout and being overworked can lead to cynicism, exhaustion, boredom, worsened job performance, and depression. This can lead to a downward spiral of feeling more burnt out and more depressed, leading to worsened self-esteem and hopelessness.

Workaholism, or the uncontrollable urge to work constantly, affects nearly half of Americans.

Yet workaholism, overworking, and burnout are very preventable, especially with professional help from a therapist. They can help you learn how to stop overworking and break the cycle.  

Overworking, Culture, and the Bottom Line

Overworking doesn't just affect employee mental health. It hurts business.

Working long hours doesn't necessarily improve productivity. In fact, it can decrease productivity. Overworking leads to many things that make deep focus, creativity, strategic thinking, and teamwork harder, like sleep deprivation, high levels of stress, and simply too many irons in the fire.

A culture of overworking can lead to many negative consequences. It isn't unusual for employees to start competing and comparing themselves to each other based on how many hours they work. Employees will start staying in the office or being online for long hours, even if they aren't actually working, to appear like they meet the expectations.

Related: How to Boost Employee Morale

If employees are overworked for long enough, employee retention will suffer.

All of this has a huge cost for employers. Fatigued workers cost hundreds of billions of dollars in lost productive time every year.

Overworking can also cause us to lose sight of the bigger picture. It makes us focus on what we have to get done and not necessarily what we could be doing better. It causes employees, and entire companies, to focus on helping customers less.

How to Deal with Overwork

Now that you know overworking and its effects on mental health and the bottom line, let's delve into how to cope with it.

How to Stop Overworking as an Employee

1. Create work-life boundaries

Physically and mentally separate your work and home life.

Try blocking off your work hours on your calendar and stick with them. Wear special clothes just for your workday. "Commute" to and from work by taking a walk around the block at the beginning and end of your day.

Make sure your workspace is separate from your leisure space, even if your desk is in the corner of your living room. Keep work in your workspace. This will help you truly leave work behind at the end of the day.

And please don't work on the weekends, if you can help it. You need to take a break!

2. Prioritize

Nail down a system for your tasks.

Here's one to try: write down your top three priorities for the day in order of importance. Do the most important or most time-consuming thing first.

Figure out which times are the most productive for you, and work on the hardest tasks then.

Set times you check your email. Perhaps once in the morning, once after lunch, and once at the end of the day. It is okay not to respond right away to emails.

3. Don't people-please

Over workers and workaholics tend to take on too many projects. It's okay to say no sometimes!

If your plate is getting too full, it is better to be honest rather than experience a drop in performance or productivity later.

4. Take breaks

Taking breaks helps increase productivity. Take lunch breaks, and don't eat at your desk. Take a short walk in the middle of the day. Take little breaks every hour.  Stepping away will help you recharge so you can be productive when you are at your desk.

5. Turn off notifications and eliminate distractions

While you are working, make sure you are getting as few notifications as possible. Those little interruptions can really put a damper on your productivity. Do whatever you can to make sure you are at your best during working hours so you can get into the flow state.

When your workday is over, turn off work notifications. If it is truly an emergency, someone will call you!

6. Take time for yourself

Learn how to prioritize self-care. Take some time in the morning before you start working to exercise, read, meditate... whatever helps you find some Zen.

How to Reduce Employee Overwork as an Employer

1. Talk about it

Start talking about overworking and the negative impacts it has.

Make it clear what the expectations are. Tell employees they aren't expected to work more than x hours per day.

You can also talk about mental health at work. This is a great way to improve culture and start providing the support people need.

2. Incentivize employees to take time off

Some companies require employees to take time off or even provide a bonus for doing so!

Have a set number of days employees are expected to take time off. Managers—if your direct reports aren't taking time off, tell them to.

3. Set the example

You should take time off, too! And take it completely off, if you can. Turn off your notifications when you aren't working.

Make your mental health a priority. Talk about your personal struggles with overworking and how you cope. This will help your employees feel more comfortable and scale back their hours.

4. Get rid of time wasters

The first-time waster that comes to mind for most? Meetings.

Find alternatives to meetings likeinstant messaging and collaborative documents.

At Nivati, we have No Meeting Wednesdays—dedicated to deep work and getting stuff done.

There's never been a more crucial time to address overworking. Do it for yourself and your team!  

Stop stacking benefits. Start being well. Set a Nivati demo


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Haeli Harris
Haeli Harris
Haeli Harris, LMFT is the Director of Clinical Operations at Nivati. She has been practicing as a Marriage and Family Therapist since 2014. Haeli has experience working as a therapist in private practice settings, residential facilities, outpatient treatment care, schools, and telehealth.