Can Working Too Hard Give You A Stroke?

At 26, an Austin tech employee was logging 70-hour weeks at a start-up – until he had a stroke. It’s changed the way he views everything, including work.

By MIchael MarksOctober 3, 2016 11:02 am|

In 2001, Jonas Koffler was working for a tech startup in Austin. He was 26 years old, ambitious, and climbing the company ladder by working over 70 hours a week. He’d work around the clock, taking cat naps rather than logging a full night’s sleep.

He was happy to do it, too. His hard work, it seemed, was getting results. And then – suddenly – everything stopped. One moment he was giving a presentation; the next, he was in a hospital. He’d had a stroke. The doctors told him that the stress and overexertion from his work may have helped cause it.

Koffler wrote about having a stroke at 26 and how it changed the way he works in an editorial for the New York Times. He says his workplace at an education start-up was both “supportive” and “focused.”

“It wasn’t simply me,” he says, “it was everyone working hard, from the top down to the bottom. It required folks to use some unconventional thinking and often required some long hours. That was the milieu I found myself in.”

Koffler says the long hours and dedication to work isn’t just the atmosphere at start-ups – it’s true of any ambitious workplace.

“You’re aware you’re working a lot of hours because you’re not spending a lot of time at hom,” Koffler says. “But you accept that. That’s the norm.”

After Koffler had the stroke he says he decided to change how he approached work in general. He says he chose to smile more, laugh more, unplug as much as he could and bring joy to the work he does.

“If you have an event like [a stroke], you realize you need to be more reflective and you need to learn to let go of the level of stress you have,” he says, “and break free of that invincibility cloak that can sort of suffocate us.”

But it’s not only up to the individual to make time for self-care, he says. It’s also up to companies to give space to their workers.

“When it comes to ambition, there is a subjective sweet spot – at the intersection of overload and meaningful opportunity for us,” Koffler says. “So if you’re doing what you love … it’s a gift, but it’s also responsibility. Not only for you as a person to practice self-care outside the office but also I think for companies to be aware that their workers are working extremely hard, extremely long hours for extended periods of time. [They have] a responsibility to talk about it.”

Post by Hannah McBride and Beth Cortez-Neavel.