The rise of globalisation and the 24/7 economy are fuelling demands for people to work long hours and weekends. But what’s the evidence about how these ways of working link with depression? Gill Weston and colleagues from the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health at UCL and Queen Mary University of London found such working conditions are linked to poorer mental health in women.
Across the globe, the effects of overwork are becoming apparent. In eastern Asian countries the risk of death due to overwork has increased. In the UK, work-related stress accounts for millions of lost working days every year.
Within the EU, a significant proportion of people have to work unsociable hours – with nearly a quarter working most Saturdays and a third working at least one Sunday a month. But despite this, there isn’t much clear evidence about the links between work patterns and mental health.
Some studies have found a connection between unsociable work patterns and depression. But many of the studies only focused on men, some only looked at specific types of worker or workplaces and few took account of work conditions such as whether workers had any control over how fast they worked.
To address these gaps, we set out to look for links between long or irregular hours and depression using a large nationally representative sample of working men and women in the UK. We particularly wanted to look at whether there were differences between men and women because research has shown that work is organised, experienced and rewarded differently for men and women, and because men and women react differently to overwork and time pressure.
We used data from Understanding Society, which surveys people living in 40,000 households across the UK. In particular we focused on information about working hours, weekend working and working conditions collected from 11,215 working men and 12,188 working women between 2010 and 2012. They had completed a questionnaire designed to study levels of psychological distress.
Who works the most?
We found men tended to work longer hours in paid work than women, and having children affected men’s and women’s work patterns in different ways: while mothers tended to work fewer hours than women without children, fathers tended to work more hours than men without children.
Two thirds of all men worked weekends, compared with half of all women. Those who worked all or most weekends were more likely to be in low skilled work and to be less satisfied with their job and their earnings than those who only worked Monday to Friday or some weekends
Which workers have the most depressive symptoms?
Women, in general, are more likely to be depressed than men, and this was no different in our study.
Independent of their working patterns, we also found that workers with the most depressive symptoms were older, smokers, on lower incomes, in physically demanding jobs, and who were dissatisfied at work.
Are long and irregular hours linked to depression?
Taking these findings and other factors into account, when we looked at the mental health effects of work patterns on men and on women, the results were striking: while there was little or no difference in depressive symptoms between men who worked long hours and those who did not, this was not the case for women.
Those women who worked 55 hours or more per week had a higher risk of depression than women working a standard 35-40 hour week.
Similarly, weekend working showed differences for men and women. Compared to workers who only worked on weekdays, men who worked weekends also had a greater number of depressive symptoms, but only if they had little control at work or were dissatisfied with work. Whereas for women, regardless of their control or satisfaction, working most or all weekends was linked to more depressive symptoms.
Why might women suffer more than men while working these antisocial hours?
There might be a number of reasons why women might be more affected than men:
- Women who work long hours are in a minority – just four per cent of them in our sample worked 55 hours or more per week. This may place them under additional pressure.
- Women working longer hours tend to be in male-dominated occupations, and this may also contribute to stress.
- Women working weekends tend to be concentrated in low-paid service sector jobs, which have been linked to higher levels of depression.
- Many women face the additional burden of doing a larger share of domestic labour than men, leading to extensive total work hours, added time pressures or overwhelming responsibilities.
What should be done about these risks?
Our findings should 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.
Long work hours, weekend working and depressive symptoms in men and women: Findings from a UK population-based study by Gill Weston, Afshin Zilanawala, Elizabeth Webb, Livia Carvalho, and Anne McMunn is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, which is published by the BMJ.