Are Long Hours Making Workers Sick?

ThinkstockPhotos-179039030In some parts of the world, workaholism is beginning to look uncool. Some companies in South Korea are literally turning off the lights to get people out of the office at a reasonable hour. Desks in a Dutch design studio automatically retract into the ceiling at 6 p.m. Researchers in Sweden report increased worker productivity with an experimental six-hour day.

What’s happening in the U.S.? Long workdays remain as popular — or necessary — as ever. And now some new research suggests there are long-term consequences that employers, as well as workers, need to understand.

A study conducted by researchers at The Ohio State University and the Mayo Clinic finds people who routinely work long hours have sharply higher risks of chronic conditions like cancer and heart disease later in life. And the risks are especially severe for women.

Workers at the beginning of their careers may be happy to invest in long work-weeks, and employers benefit, notes lead author Allard Dembe, a professor of public health at Ohio State. But “you may be setting the stage for a physical breakdown later in life,” he says.

Other studies have found long hours at work can lead to stress, fatigue, reduced work performance and safety issues. But until now few researchers had looked at long-term health effects. Dembe and Xiaoxi Yao, now a research associate at the Mayo Clinic, found a way by analyzing a database that tracked both the work hours and self-reported health information of more than 12,000 people nationally from 1979 to 2011. Only full-time work was counted.

The results, published online last month in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, were particularly stunning for women: Those who averaged 60-plus-hour weeks over those 32 years were at least three times as likely to report heart disease, cancer, arthritis or diabetes. That’s compared to those who had average workweeks of 30 to 40 hours.

Men in the study showed smaller increased risk. The largest effect in men was with arthritis, which was more than twice as likely for those working 60 hours or more, compared to standard full-time hours.

Earlier research had suggested that women might see more long-term health effects, but the size of the disparity was surprising, Dembe says: “I didn’t expect the gender effect to be so, so striking … it was just day and night.”

Researchers can only speculate as to why, but Dembe thinks the most plausible explanation is that most women have greater responsibilities at home than men. “A lot of things are going on here,” he says. But one is the “multiple roles that women play in society, compared to men,” he says. “Women don’t have the time.”

What can employers do? Working long hours is “part of American culture,” Dembe says, and curbing workaholism isn’t easy. But companies can make employees aware of the consequences of long hours — and start health screening programs early, he says. Existing wellness and chronic-disease-management programs can be part of the effort .

“Talk about the issue when people are younger,” Dembe says. For employers, “this study suggests you really should think about it.”