Setting aside one day of the week to rest has Biblical origins. But in our modern, frenetic, never-unplugged world, that day of rest has all but disappeared. Many Americans work very long hours over the course of a week. And sometimes, that week consists of seven days.
In fact, according to some data, Americans put in more hours at the office annually than just about any other industrialized country in the world.
But clearly, keeping that break-neck pace year after year can have negative consequences—especially for your health. In fact, a new study found that working long hours over several years significantly increases your stroke risk.
I’ll tell you more about that important study in a moment, but first let’s back up…
Working dusk ‘till dawn and beyond
Early in American history, when people lived independently off the land, most of the work on the farm was necessarily done during daylight hours. And as time went on, work in many places around the world stopped during the hottest hours of the day and the hottest weeks of the year.
In fact, when I spent time in France as I child, I remember that stores and businesses would completely shut down between noon and 3 p.m.—encouraging people to eat and rest.
Then, around 3 p.m., the shops would reopen and stay open until 7 p.m. (When I visited during the 1990s, you could still starve on the streets, trying to find a restaurant that was open after lunch and before dinner.)
Throughout Europe during the 1950s and 1960s, many institutions, schools, and businesses would close early on Thursdays. And some would operate half-days on Saturdays—including half-day school sessions. (Of course, nothing was open on Sundays and holidays.)
But those kinds of hours and that slower pace of life has almost completely vanished, falling to the crony, corporatist push for even bigger profits and other modern sensibilities. (And perhaps with a little help from Willis Carrier, the man who invented air conditioning in 1902.)
So, now, let’s get back to the new study, which was also conducted in France—a place still well-known for its relaxed work schedule…
Break-neck work rate linked to higher stroke risk
For the new study, researchers followed more than 140,000 French men and women ages 18 to 69. They analyzed data on age, sex, smoking, and work hours.
It turns out, 29 percent of workers reported working long hours (more than 10 hours a day for at least 50 days per year). And 10 percent of workers reported working long hours for 10 years or more. (In the U.S., those percentages would be much higher.)
Researchers found that just over 1,200 participants suffered from strokes. And those who reported working long hours had a 29 percent greater risk of stroke. Worse yet, those who reported working long hours for 10 years or more increased their stroke risk by 45 percent. Not to mention, the association of stroke risk with long work hours was stronger among people younger than 50 years.
Of course, the classic risk factors for stroke—like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and related cardiovascular disease—become more common as people get older. But these “classic” risk factors are not as common among those younger than 50. So the stress associated with longer work hours (and shorter relaxation time) comes to the forefront.
Interestingly, previous studies have found that business owners, CEOs, professionals, managers, and farmers who work long hours don’t suffer the ill-health effects as much. Of course, these workers are exempt from the work-hour limitations set by government and union regulators. So, they often work longer hours than most others. But the French researchers explain that this group also has more “decision latitude” than others, meaning that they have a greater level of control of their work life—which helps reduce stress.
Statistics would be worse in the U.S.
It’s rather interesting to me that these findings came from France. Because as I mentioned earlier, France is well-known for its relaxed work culture—with six-week summer vacations and two to three hour lunches, with time for a little nap after the mid-day meal.
By contrast, in the U.S., many workers have much more rigorous work schedules. And Washington, D.C.—where I spent most of my career—is no exception. The importance of some of the work, and the self-importance of most of the workers in D.C., leads to a nearly non-stop schedule of work and work-related activities, including evenings and weekends. (As Hemingway wrote, don’t confuse motion with action.)
Of course, as you may recall, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke due to excess work during his second term. He may have been doomed from the start, as he was the only Democrat (other than Grover Cleveland) elected to be President since 1856…and the first to be re-elected for much longer than that.
Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 on the promise to, “keep us out of war.” But within 14 months, the U.S. did enter WWI by sending troops to Europe.
And by then, after nearly three years of bloody stalemate, the Great War had lost all meaning (if it ever had any). And Wilson waded in with his idealistic promises for the “war to end all wars,” and “to make the world safe for democracy,” ready or not.
After the war, Wilson pursued the League of Nations. But the U.S. Senate, led by Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA), opposed the league in light of George Washington’s admonition in his farewell address to, “avoid entangling alliances.”
Wilson took his case directly to the American people, working and traveling tirelessly by train. Then, on October 2, 1919, in his railroad car in Pueblo, Colorado, he collapsed from exhaustion and was found to have suffered a stroke.
He never regained functional capacity. But for the next 18 months (until the end of his second term in March 1921), his second wife, his doctor, and his White House Chief of Staff secretly exercised the duties of the Presidency. His Vice President, Thomas Marshall, kept silent. Except for his quip, “what this country needs is a good 5-cent cigar.” And when Secretary of State Robert Lansing questioned the arrangement, he was fired.
In 1996, I directed a national exhibit on the impacts of Presidents who had illnesses while in office. Surprisingly, about half of all Presidents suffered from illnesses serious enough to affect their work. And virtually all of them made efforts to hide their health from the public. But the case of Wilson was by far the most egregious.
Fortunately, you don’t have to end up like Wilson. I made the decision to leave the rat race around D.C. years ago. And, as I wrote earlier this summer, it’s made all the difference for my health.
So, what are you waiting on? Start making some changes to your daily work routine, too. If you’re not sure where to start, take a look at the August 2019 issue of my monthly newsletter, Insiders’ Cures (“My secret to a healthy work-life balance”). Subscribers have access to this issue and all of my past content, so click here to sign up today!
You can also learn about all the ways to reduce your risk of stroke and heart disease, without resorting to harmful drugs and procedures, in my Heart Attack Prevention and Repair Protocol. To learn more, or to enroll today, click here now!
“Association Between Reported Long Working Hours and History of Stroke in the CONSTANCES Cohort.” Stroke, 2019; 50:1879–1882. doi.org/10.1161/STROKEAHA.119.025454
“Americans work too long (and too often at strange times).” Vox CEPR Policy Portal, 2014. (voxeu.org/article/americans-work-long-and-strange-times)