Is A 40 Hour Working Week Bad For Your Health?

According to a study published in Social Science and Medicine, it’s best not to work more than 39 hours a week. But why? And is working more than this really bad for our health?

In the 19th century, it was common for full time production workers in non-agricultural activities to work more than 60 hours every week. Fast forward to the end of the 20th century and the average working week looked very different, with workers working 20 or even 30 hours less every week on average.

The journey to shorter working weeks didn’t happen overnight – far from it. Stonemasons in Melbourne, Australia were amongst the first workers in the world to successfully campaign for 8 hour working day in 1856. In England, one of the leading figureheads for the campaign for the shorter working week was factory owner Robert Owen. In 1817 he coined the slogan ‘8 hours labour, 8 hours rest, 8 hours recreation’.

In the Household Income Labour Dynamics of Australia Survey (HILDA), researchers surveyed almost 10,000 Australian households (19,000 individuals) to determine their workload, both at home and in the workplace, and examine how it affected happiness. HILDA researchers followed the same participants over a period of 15 years (2000-2016) to ensure that the long-term effects of their workloads would be clear.

Once all the data had been collected and analysed, it became apparent that working too little could be just as detrimental to mental health as working too much. An average of 39 hours of work proved to be the upper threshold beyond which mental health would start to suffer. However, the happiness of participants who worked too few hours also suffered, perhaps due to lack of income or reduction in perceived usefulness.

Lead Researcher Dr Huong Dinh believes that longer working hours negatively affect workers’ health. “Long work hours erode a person’s mental and physical health, because it leaves less time to eat well and look after themselves properly,” she said.

It’s worth noting that 39 hours is the average for both men and women. When Dinh and her team examined data from women, they saw that the healthy working limit was slightly less, at 34 hours.

“Despite the fact that women on average are as skilled as men, women on average have lower paid jobs and less autonomy than men, and they spend much more time on care and domestic work,” explained Dr Dinh.

“Given the extra demands placed on women, it’s impossible for women to work long hours often expected by employers unless they compromise their health.”

The research makes it clear that more can, and should, be done to ensure steps are taken to ensure a healthier work-life balance for both men and women.

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