Women who work long hours for the majority of their careers may be hurting their chance to reap the rewards of their work in a healthy, happy retirement. Researchers recently found that when women work over 60 hours a week for most of their career, they increase their chances for developing life-threatening illnesses. How much of an increased risk? Women who work longer hours are astonishingly three times as likely to develop heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis.
The researchers from The Ohio State University, led by Allard Dembe, tracked adults over a 32-year period as part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979. They found that the risk begins to rise when women put in more than 40 hours and escalates when they work more than 50 hours.
Men weren’t affected nearly as much by work hours over 40 hours per week. While they also had a higher incidence of arthritis, their risk of developing chronic diseases didn’t increase with longer work hours. In fact, men who worked between 41 and 50 hours per week decreased their risk of lung disease, heart problems, and depression than those who worked 40 hours or less.
Why are females’ bodies so much more vulnerable to chronic health problems? The answer may have to do with all the responsibilities they carry in their personal lives. When women work longer hours, they may endure more pressure and stress than men because they have the bulk of family responsibility and obligations.
One shortcoming of the study is that it doesn’t provide answers about the differences between those who regularly worked long hours and those employees whose early careers required long hours but later found themselves with reduced hours, the researchers said.
Looking closer at women who work mandatory overtime versus discretionary overtime may also affect the study. If women work hard because they want to, rather than need to, they may stay healthier.
Even so, companies need to take notice of the risks hiding behind 50-60 hour work weeks. Previous research shows that employees are more stressed, fatigued, and more likely to struggle with sleep and digestion when they work extended work weeks. Furthermore, their work performance suffers and they are prone to injuries on the job. As many companies are beginning to acknowledge, when workers are healthier, employers benefit in terms of retention, quality of work and reduced medical costs. Employers could offer more flexible scheduling, health coaching, counseling resources, and screening to lower risk of chronic conditions.
The study was supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.