Is Overwork Hurting Your Health? TCM Tips for Work-Life Balance and Preventing Illness

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), overwork is a major cause of illness. If we don’t rest and relax enough, we get depleted, use up our energy reserves, and sooner or later things start to go wrong. In the last couple of decades, studies have confirmed that working too much is bad for our health, giving us some sobering statistics to back up the traditional perspective. For example, not using vacation time leads to an increased risk of death of 21%, and a 32% increased likelihood of death by heart attack (Gump & Matthews, 2000).

Overthinking is Overworking

Of course, for most of us it’s not that extreme. But in the age of smart phones and email, it gets harder and harder to leave work at the office, and that takes a toll on both our physical and emotional health. TCM sees mental work as taking just as much energy as physical labour, which is why you can feel as exhausted after a day of sitting in front of a computer as if you’d been physically working all day. A healthy lifestyle requires a balance of mental activity, physical movement, and relaxation. Many of us struggle to switch off our minds at the end of the day, finding our minds racing in circles even when we try to stop and unwind – a symptom that we’ve already depleted our reserves and are running on empty (Spleen Qi vacuity, for those of you who like the technical terms). It’s no surprise that insomnia and anxiety are common symptoms in a culture that values mental activity so highly, as too much thinking drains our Spleen Qi, making it hard to stop our minds from spinning.

Sleep Deprivation Leads to Low Immunity

Sleep deprivation is so common in our society that it’s considered fairly normal – both students and professionals tend to pull all-nighters before a deadline, and most people need an alarm clock to get up in time for work. You may not consider yourself sleep-deprived, but if you use an alarm to get up, and especially if you find it hard to drag yourself out of bed without pressing snooze a few times, you’re probably not getting the rest your body needs. It makes sense that when we’re not getting enough sleep our bodies won’t function perfectly, and it’s often the immune system that suffers. Burning the candle at both ends can lead to weakened immunity, so it might take you weeks to get over a cold, or it might seem like you catch another cold as soon as you get over the first one.

TCM Teaches Us to Live According to the Seasons

Overwork can lead to many illnesses according to TCM

Working too hard takes an even greater toll during winter.

Modern life doesn’t give us much flexibility to follow the needs of our bodies. We have to stay on clock time, getting up at 7am regardless of whether the sun’s up yet or not. Longer days and more sunlight give us a natural boost so it’s normal to feel more energy in the spring and summer and less when the days grow short. That works great for farmers or hunter-gatherers, who have lots more to do during the growing season and get to rest in the winters, but most of us are expected to do just as much work during winter. This may be one of the reasons so many people are affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Physical tiredness is often part of the same constellation of symptoms as depression or anxiety in TCM, and long, cold winters take an extra toll on our bodies.

TCM Tips to Stop Working Too Much

So, given that you’re unlikely to be able to quit your job, what can you do? A big part of the challenge is resisting a culture that celebrates workaholism, and carefully designing a life that gives you enough downtime, even if you’re under pressure to ignore your body’s needs. Here are a few suggestions for bringing your life back into balance:

  1. Be honest with yourself. Evaluate your lifestyle and ask yourself if you’re getting enough rest. If not, think about what you can let go of to give yourself some relaxation time.
  2. Get to bed on time. The more depleted we get, the harder it can be to switch our minds off and get a good night’s sleep, leading to a vicious cycle. If this sounds familiar, try turning off electronics an hour before bed and relaxing with some meditation or reading.
  3. Eat well. If you can’t cut down on your work, you need to support your body with easily digestible food and good nutrition. Eating warm, cooked food instead or salads or raw food will help to protect you against the consequences of overwork.

Overwork is just one of the ways we can deplete our energy and leave ourselves exposed to a greater risk of illness. While there’s no substitute for a balanced amount of work, play, and rest, there are ways to supplement our Qi when we need extra help – diet, herbs, and acupuncture, for example. I’ll be focusing on the kind of diet TCM recommends in an upcoming newsletter.

In the meantime, get off the computer and get outside for some R&R!

Your health ally,




Gump, B. B., & Matthews, K. A. (2000). Are vacations good for your health? The 9-year mortality experience after the multiple risk factor intervention trial. Psychosom Med, 62(5), 608-612.

Moss Andrewes is an acupuncturist and practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, specializing in women’s health and chronic illness. Originally from the UK and now residing in Canada, she is a writer, speaker, and event organizer, focusing on health, sustainable living and community. Her lifelong passion for making the world a happier, healthier place has led her through many adventures, including off-grid sustainable living, disaster relief, and various community health projects. She currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with her partner and two cats.

Let me know what you think!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *