Work to live, or live to work?

Earlier this week, a study was reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, indicating that working 11 or more hours per day may be a risk factor for heart disease. Risk factors for heart disease have been long-established by the Framingham study, a 60+ year project that followed a group of people living in Framingham, Massachusetts. By studying the same people (and later their children) over a life span, researchers were able to learn a great deal about risk factors for heart disease (the study was designed for that purpose).

The new study examined people in the British civil service, first in the early 1990s and through 2004. The researchers wanted to see if working hours could also be a predictor for heart disease, in addition to those factors established by Framingham research. The British civil service provides a desirable population for researchers because everyone has the same access to health care in England. Results showed that those participants working 11 hours or more a day had a 67% higher risk of developing heart disease. (One caveat is that this was a relatively low-risk population to begin with, so there is no way of knowing if the results could be generalized to higher-risk populations.)

How do we tame working hours in an era of being constantly tethered to our work through smart phones and laptops? Forty years ago, people thought that when computers and other technology became universally available, our lives would be easier and include more leisure time. In fact, one could argue that the opposite is true. There is a fun video on YouTube by Philip Zimbardo (Stanford professor famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment), called The Secret Powers of Time. It’s a riff on our attitudes about time, cultural differences related to time and how technological changes have influenced our perceptions of time. One distressing part of the video is when Zimbardo talks about a study that asked people what they would do with an extra day if there were 8 days in the week. In spite of the fact that so many people bemoan not having enough leisure time or time with family, what did most people say they would do? Work more.

I think we all know at some innate level what is good for us and what’s not. We know that more sleep feels good, that being with people who love us feels good, that being in nature nourishes us, and that eating good food and moving our bodies a little (or a lot) feels right. So when are we going to make the choice (for those of us privileged enough to have a choice) to live in a way that brings us that sense of well-being? Maybe it will take a major cultural shift that will be led by a younger generation that rejects the value of live to work. Maybe they will figure out that living a “balanced” life isn’t about finding a way to have and do it all. Balance is about knowing your values and making choices based on them.

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