Working Late Takes a Toll on Your Brain

Working extra hours is as bad for your brainpower as smoking, a new study finds.

May 20, 2009

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—We all get tired and cranky at the end of a long work week—and now it seems we get dumber, too. A new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology has found that people who work more than 55 hours a week score lower on vocabulary and reasoning tests than people who work normal 40-hour weeks.

THE DETAILS: Researchers analyzed data from 2,214 participants of a long-term study of British civil servants. Their sample, made up primarily of men, included people who were employed and who had taken five cognitive tests on memory, reasoning skills, vocabulary, and language during both of the last two phases of the study, which were five years apart. After adjusting for complicating factors, such as education levels, possible health problems, and occupational position, the researchers found that people who worked more than 55 hours per week scored lower on vocabulary tests during both phases of the study, and they didn’t perform as well on the reasoning tests at the second follow-up five years later. In fact, working late was so tough on mental abilities that, the authors write, “the difference in aspects of cognitive functioning between employees working long hours and those working normal hours is similar in magnitude to that of smoking, a risk factor for dementia which has been found to affect cognition,” they write.


WHAT IT MEANS: You aren’t doing yourself any favors by burning the midnight oil at the office. In today’s economic climate, where downsizing has left a lot of employees doing the work of two or three, we all feel the need to pull our weight or end up next on the chopping block. However, if you’re working late because you don’t feel like you’re getting enough done during the day, a few adjustments to your work habits may save you some time.

Here are some ways to be more efficient and effective during the workday:

• Don’t be a maniac multitasker. As easy as it may seem to talk on the phone while answering a few emails and finishing up that report, more and more research is finding that our brains just aren’t wired to do more than one thing at a time. When you think you’re doing two tasks at once, you’re really just switching back and forth between them, which actually takes longer than if you did just one thing at a time.

• Take advantage of your morning momentum. For most of us, efficiency is greater in the morning, but we start our days wasting it on phone calls or going online. Spend 90 minutes first thing in the morning doing a task you know will require a great deal of focus, then check your calls and emails.

• Make 90 your lucky number. After your morning creativity spurt, carve the rest of your day into 90-minute work sessions in which you focus on one thing, and one thing only. At the end of each session, spend 20 to 30 minutes doing more fragmented tasks before you begin another longer one.

• Breathe! Our days and weeks tend to get more frantic as the hours tick by. When stress starts to tear at your attention, meditate for five minutes by simply sitting still and focusing attention on your breathing. The more stressed out you get, the more likely you are to put off tasks that require concentration.

• Enjoy life. The authors write that one possible explanation for the reduced vocabulary skills in long-hours workers could be a lack of time spent on nonwork-related intellectual pursuits. If leaving an eight-hour day is still impossible after your attempts to improve efficiency, at least spend the weekends with a book club, visiting art museums, or doing other creative activities that allow you to develop intellectually.

You can also check out the remedy finder for more ways to ease stress