Could All Work and No Play Hurt Your Health?

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on September 04, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 1, 2015 -- Type A. Workaholic. Burning the candle at both ends. Married to the job.

If any of those describe your approach to your career, and you’re letting those vacation days pile up, you may be setting yourself up for some serious health problems.

A recent study from University College in London, for instance, linked working long hours to stroke risk.

Researchers looked at data on more than 600,000 people, and found that those who worked more than 55 hours per week had a nearly 33% higher risk of stroke than those who worked a normal 40-hour week.

The study also showed a 13% increased risk for a heart attack.

But a big question remains -- why might working so much be bad for us?

Stress may be a major factor, says Charles Raison, MD, professor of psychiatry for the University of Wisconsin.

If you've got ongoing stress, "the body begins to accommodate that chronic stress, and almost none of the effects are good,” he says.

The mental tension and worry has both physical and mental effects, says Ralph Sacco, MD, a neurologist and past president of the American Heart Association.

“One of the biggest things we know (is) that people who are stressed -- whether it’s individual family stress, economic stress, or social stress -- can increase blood pressure, and the risk of heart disease and stroke,” Sacco says. “It can also increase the risk of depression, and depression itself is related to an increase stroke and heart disease.”

In fact, some workplace stress can be as bad for us as secondhand tobacco smoke, according to a recent analysis of more than 200 studies, done by Harvard Business School and Stanford University.

The analysis looked at 10 workplace stressors, including work-family conflict, job insecurity, and “a lack of perceived fairness” by companies. It measured how those things affected a person’s self-rated poor physical and mental health, doctor-diagnosed health problems, and death.

Work-family conflict increases the odds of self-reported poor physical health by about 90%, the analysis found. And a lack of perceived fairness by an employer ups the odds of having a doctor-diagnosed health problem by about 50%.

Tips to Unplug

So what to do, particularly if you don’t feel you can work fewer hours per week? The answer may be as simple as those days off you might not be using.

“I recommend taking all of your vacation time,” Raison says.

Even short vacations can have benefits, according to a 2011 study. Researchers found that workers reported a boost in health and well-being during short vacations, saying they felt “relaxed and psychologically detached,” spent more time on conversations with their partners, and got more pleasure from activities.

Unfortunately, those benefits can be short-lived once we return to work, studies have found. So making time for vacations throughout the year is important, along with seizing opportunities for breaks, Finnish researchers concluded in 2012.

Whether regular getaways can help improve our overall health remains to be seen, but many studies have linked reductions in stress with better health.

And just hopping in a car or on a plane won’t do the trick, Raison says. Don’t forget to take time to give your mind a rest while you're on vacation, too.

“It’s so important, for at least a number of those days, to get off of cell phones if you can. No texting, no emails,” he says.

Not doing this can be “actually worse sometimes [than being at work], because you see a problem and you can’t do anything about it. “

Almost 40% of people say they don’t take the vacation time they have, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Travel Association, because they feel the company would be in trouble without them, or because they would come back to a mountain of work. The association’s report included feedback from focus groups and a survey of about 1,300 U.S. workers.

One-third of managers suggested that a worker taking all his or her vacation days sends a signal that the worker is not committed.

Take Breathers During the Day

While physically getting away can be good, you can still take relaxation breaks -- say, at home after work -- regardless of your job environment, Raison says.

“Many people find that meditation in brief periods can be a way to take a break,” he says. “If you are lucky enough to live somewhere near a park or some open space, getting out in nature without your cell phone and not texting -- just taking a walk -- can be like a mini vacation.”

He also recommends that you don't bring work -- or your cell phone -- to the dinner table. And set up at least a few hours of time each day to be phone- and email-free.

Sacco suggests regular visits with your doctor and screening tests for things like high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke risk factors.

“Preventative health is crucial, particularly to reducing heart disease and stroke risk. If you don’t get to a doctor, you won’t know what your blood pressure is, you won’t know what your blood sugar is, you may not know your cholesterol -- and if you don’t know these things, you may not know to get them treated.”

The bottom line, says Raison -- don’t be afraid to take it easy sometimes.

“Not taking time off is like breaking your leg and continuing to walk on it,” he says. "You have to get rest, and if you do it right, you may actually end up being more productive at work.”

Show Sources


Charles Raison, MD, professor, Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Ralph Sacco, MD, neurologist and epidemiologist, past president, American Heart Association.

Overwhelmed America: Why Don’t We Use Our Earned Leave?

Kivimaki, M. The Lancet, Aug. 19, 2015.

De Bloom, J. Stress Health, published online Dec. 28, 2011.

De Bloom, J. Journal of Occupational Health, published online Dec. 19, 2008.

Ahola, K. Duodecim, 2012.

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