Long working hours linked to heightened depression risk in women, with implications for health workers

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Women working more than 55 hours per week are at a heightened risk of depression, and weekend work has been linked to heightened risk among both sexes, according to new research published in the BMJ's Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Working shifts outside of standard ‘office’ hours is a known factor associated with both poorer physical and mental health. Research to date though has largely focused on men and/or on specific jobs, according to the researchers behind the study. To try and put this right, the researchers drew on data from Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS). This has been tracking the health and wellbeing of a representative sample of 40,000 households across the UK since 2009.

In their paper, Long work hours, weekend working and depressive symptoms in men and women: findings from a UK population-based study, the researchers focused on data for 12,188 women and 11,215 men from the second wave of the UKHLS in 2010-12 as this included information on employment. Depressive symptoms were measured using a validated general health questionnaire (GHQ-12).

"Women in general are more likely to be depressed than men, and this was no different in the study," said Gill Weston (UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care), PhD candidate and lead author of the study.

Women who worked 55 or more hours a week and/or who worked all or most weekends had the worst mental health of all, with significantly more depressive symptoms - 7.3% more - than women working standard weekday hours. Among women, depressive symptoms were associated with the number of weekends worked, rather than the length of weekend hours. Men who worked all or most weekends had 3.4% more depressive symptoms than men working only weekdays.

“Such jobs, when combined with frequent or complex interactions with the public or clients, have been linked to higher levels of depression. Our findings of more depressive symptoms among women working extra-long hours might also be explained by the potential double burden experienced by women when their long hours in paid work are added on their time in domestic labour,” Ms Weston explained.

While men tended to work longer hours than women, and nearly half of the women worked part time compared with just one in seven men, “previous studies have found that once unpaid housework and caring is accounted for, women work longer than men, on average, and that this has been linked to poorer physical health,” Ms Weston said.

Using the standard working week of 35 to 40 hours as a reference, working weeks were categorised as fewer than 35 to include part-time employees; 41 to 55 (long working hours); and above 55 (extra-long working hours). The researchers factored in several potentially influential contributors: age; marital status; parenthood; earnings and satisfaction with them; long term health conditions; job type and satisfaction with it; degree of control; and qualifications. Generally, older workers, smokers, and those who earned the least and who had the least job control were more depressed. And this applied to both sexes. But gender differences in working patterns were evident.

This is an observational study, and as such, can’t establish cause. But the Ms Weston nevertheless concluded: “Our findings should encourage employers and policy makers to consider interventions aimed at reducing women’s burdens without restricting their full participation in the workforce, and at improving psychosocial work conditions. We hope our findings will encourage employers and policy-makers to think about how to reduce the burdens and increase support for women who work long or irregular hours, without restricting their ability to work when they wish to. More sympathetic working practices could bring benefits both for workers and for employers, of both sexes."”