Hard Work and Your Health

September 4, 2023
David Hummels

David Hummels

Succeeding in school and in your career takes hard work. But is it possible to work too hard? Sure, we’ve all felt stressed out and overburdened during an exam week or when personal and work and school obligations build up (You might remember “Wake up, you need to make money!” from Twenty One Pilots’ hit song, “Stressed Out”). But are there any real or lasting consequences for your health in pushing yourself too hard?

This is a difficult question to answer in rigorous research because some people are fortunate to enjoy unusually large reserves of energy and good health. You probably know someone who seems able to push themselves to superhuman lengths and never tires out or read stories of Elon Musk working 80-100 hours per week. This means that when we make comparisons across people, the ones with the most robust health are often also the ones able to work the hardest.  

Together with our Danish colleague, Jakob Munch, we used unique data from Denmark that tracked the work and health of every Danish worker over two decades. In this research, we could adjust for the natural tendency of some workers to be healthier than others and use what economists call a “natural experiment.”  Suppose a firm dramatically increases its sales in a short period of time. It doesn’t have the opportunity to hire enough new workers so all existing workers put in significantly longer hours and work more intensively every hour on the job. What happens to a worker in such a firm?

Well, first, we find that working hard really does pay off financially. But we also find a significant downside -- as these workers put in longer hours, they begin to suffer elevated health risks. They become much more likely to begin using anti-depressant medications and drugs to prevent heart disease, and they are more likely to become hospitalized for severe stress and depression, heart attacks, strokes and liver diseases (an indicator of alcoholism). These adverse health outcomes are worsened in three cases: for older workers, for workers who were already putting in long hours before sales increases and for workers who report having low control over their jobs.

Chong Xiang

Chong Xiang

What can you learn from this?  

First, the good news is that being younger seems to translate to greater health resilience in the face of increased work effort. But alas, that will not last forever (Trust us on this,  bouncebacks from 2 a.m. cram sessions take longer the older you get).

Second, piling more work on top of an already heavy load can literally be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Consider organizing your work so that your effort evens over time rather than letting everything pile up.

Third, when you are ready to graduate and seek employment, remember that the type of firm you work for and the type of work you do can significantly affect these health risks. For some firms, sales are highly seasonal, which loads intensive work pressure into a short period of time. And jobs differ significantly in the degree of autonomy and variety of work they present. Choosing firms with steady workflow and jobs with greater control over your time and actions may help mitigate health risks.

David Hummels is a distinguished professor of economics and the dean emeritus of the Daniels School of Business. His teaching and research focuses on international economics and the labor market effects of globalization.

Chong Xiang is a professor of economics at Purdue. He has a diverse range of research interests, including how we should evaluate the qualities of educational systems across countries; how globalization and technology affect health, wages and inequality; how size and time contribute to comparative advantage; and what factors shape the global trade in motion pictures and the globalization of Christianity.


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