BALTIMORE - Dr. Jeffrey Quartner recalled the crazy years he worked through his residency.
The long 36-hour rotations were exciting times, but also grueling for Dr. Quartner. In hindsight, he readily admits the care he provided at the beginning of his shift was likely better than the care he offered at the end of his shift.
"You're often working non-stop and your mind just isn't as sharp when working that long," said Dr. Quartner, a cardiologist and Medical Director for the MedStar Heart Network. "That's part of the reason why residency shifts are shorter now."
Dr. Quartner is not alone. Multiple studies have shown working excessive shifts in just about any field is detrimental to one's health and can lead to poor performance on the job.
According to a 2005 study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, working at least 12 hours per day was associated with a 37 percent increased hazard rate, and working at least 60 hours per week was associated with a 23 percent increased hazard rate.
More recently, a 2010 University College London study of more than 10,000 civil servants found those who worked an average of three or more hours compared to a regular shift had a 60 percent higher risk of heart related problems, including heart disease and heart attacks.
"There are limits to what a person can handle in any job," Dr. Quartner said.
Dr. Quartner said the impact of working too much can vary depending on the nature of the occupation. For example, someone working in a more physical job like in a factory or construction would likely have to deal with more physical ailments. Stress from a "white collar" job such as in management or finance could lead to different ailments, including depression and heart issues.
"You can easily reach the point of diminishing returns," Dr. Quartner said. "The key is making sure you maintain a proper work-life balance. If not, it's easier to make a poor decision on the job and lose focus of what makes you happy in life. All of these factors can lead to health issues both immediately and down the road."
Many business leaders understand the pressure workers face today as more employees are asked to do more with less and the nation continues to recover from the recent recession. To combat the pressure, the federal government has taken action to reduce the odds a worker is hurt or hurts someone else.
The Federal Aviation Administration recently mandated longer rest periods for pilots. Now, pilots must have a 10-hour rest period between flights, and eight of the hours must be allocated for uninterrupted sleep. The current rules also require pilots be free from duty for at least 30 straight hours per week and allow for flight duty periods between 9 to 14 hours for single crew operations.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration made similar reforms toward reducing truck driver fatigue which took full effect July 1.
The rules limit the average work week for truck drivers to 70 hours – down from 82 – to ensure that all truck operators have adequate rest. Additional rules include requiring truck drivers to take a 30-minute break during the first eight hours of a shift, limit a work day to no more than 14 hours and daily driving time to no more than 11 hours.
Additionally, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education has capped work weeks for medical residents to 80 hours. They have also reduced the maximum hours of a shift to 30 in 2003 and later 16 in 2011.
Dr. Sally Bonefas is the staff psychologist at Stevenson University. She said being overworked can cause a "spiral effect" that can impact every aspect of a person's life.
"When the stresses of a job get to be too great, it can lead to several negative consequences," Bonefas said.
"You can have trouble sleeping, and your ability to concentrate can be compromised along with a host of other physical and mental health issues. The key is to try and do everything in moderation. Be aware of how work is impacting your health and try to take appropriate action to achieve better balance in your life."