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Working Long Hours is Much Harder on the Health of Women Than Men, Study Shows

We don’t have to tell you that women are now clocking in more hours than ever at the office.

Armed with strong drives and backed by the ever-growing gender equality movement, women are grinding away at their careers in a way like never before.

But it may all come at a serious risk to their health. And by serious, I mean more than just daily stress. Working long hours has been linked to life-threatening illnesses like heart disease and cancer in women.

Work weeks that averaged 60 hours per week (something many millennials are familiar with) or more over three decades were shown to triple the risk of diabetes, cancer, heart trouble, and arthritis for women. These were the findings of new research from The Ohio State University.

Researchers analyzed data from interviews with almost 7,500 people who were part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, looking at the relationship between serious disease and hours worked over a 32-year period.

Researchers found that the risk begins to climb when women put in more than 40 hours (i.e. more than the traditional 9-5 workday). The risk takes a noticeably bad turn above 50 hours.

“Women – especially women who have to juggle multiple roles – feel the effects of intensive work experiences and that can set the table for a variety of illnesses and disability,” said Allard Dembe, professor of health services management and policy and lead author of the study, which was published online this week in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

While the marathon workweeks, meals at your desk, and back-to-back overtime may seem totally manageable now, researchers say that you’re setting yourself up for problems down the road – and ones that go beyond a classic case of burnout.

“People don’t think that much about how their early work experiences affect them down the road,” he said. “Women in their 20s, 30s and 40s are setting themselves up for problems later in life.”

When it comes to men, researchers found that they tended to fare much better health-wise when it comes to overly-demanding work schedules.

Men who worked long hours did have a higher incidence of arthritis, but none of the other chronic diseases that the women experienced. Those men who worked moderately long hours (41 to 50 hours weekly) actually had lower risk of heart disease, lung disease, and depression than those who worked 40 hours or fewer.

Previous research shows that women still tend to take on the bulk of family responsibility and may face more pressure and stress than men when they work long hours. Not to mention, they may be going through the motions begrudgingly; according to Dembe, work for women may be less satisfying because of the need to balance work demands with family obligations.

Thankfully, we are seeing an increase in the prevalence of things like paternity leave (Richard Branson is doing it), and a reduction in the stigma for stay-at-home dads.

Even so, Demke says that employers and government regulators should be educated on the risks, especially if they expect their female employees to work beyond a 40-hour workweek. As he highlights, companies benefit in terms of productivity and medical costs when their workers are healthier.

His solutions involve scheduling flexibility (something we are finally seeing in a growing number of workplaces) and on-the-job health coaching, screening and support. In my opinion, these screenings should account for physical illness, but also mental health issues as well.

It should be noted that the study included subjects born between 1957 and 1964 – women who became mothers at a very different era than the one we live in now. Hopefully, adaptive new workplace and parenting policies will help to keep our pavement-pounding females healthier.


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