30 May 2021

How longer working hours are killing us

From Sunday Morning, 9:37 am on 30 May 2021

Working over 55 hours per week 'is a serious health hazard' says the World Health Organisation, after a recent worldwide study.

Professor Tim Driscoll from the University of Sydney, a co-author of the study, tells Jim Mora what the researchers learned.

tired woman's arms

Photo: Public domain

Professor Tim Driscoll

Professor Tim Driscoll Photo: University of Sydney

Nearly 500 million people around the world work 55 hours or more per week, Professor Driscoll says.

His research team gathered information from 104 countries to try and ascertain how much this increased their risk of suffering with or dying from a heart attack or stroke.

The researchers discovered overstuffed work weeks are most common in Japan, Singapore and other areas in Asia, but nearly every country has this issue, Professor Driscoll says.

He's been there himself - once working a doctors shift that started on a Saturday morning and finished on a Monday afternoon.

While Professor Driscoll still works long hours as an academic, he now has more day-to-day control over what he does and how he does it.

It seems, according to the evidence, that the more say you have over your own day, the less stress you'll experience, he says.

"If one has more control over day-to-day activities then probably the levels of stress are less."

Yet although people now working from home - many in the wake of Covid-19 - have the advantage of more flexibility, they also face the danger of always being 'at work', Professor Driscoll says.

"The distinction between working hours and home hours has become a lot more fuzzy. People in professional jobs are still at their professional desks when they're at home … There is a feeling now that people are always at work."

The situation seems to have worsened in the last four or five years, he says.

"In times of financial uncertainty or other life uncertainty, people become more concerned about their work to seem more productive, fear their job if they're not prepared to work long hours.

"My feeling is a lot of the push for longer hours is because it's seen as expected. People feel threatened so they're prepared to work longer.

"There's just a general feeling in society that one needs more and to get more one needs more money or a good job that will allow that."

Mental health challenges are often associated with overwork but it can be hard to see the physiological dangers of it because the risks aren't immediate, Professor Driscoll says.

"With heart disease and stroke… you tend not to think about it at the time you're doing that work.

"Working longer hours, even at a younger age, the effects of that can continue for a number of years. It's not to say 'you're young, it doesn't matter.'"

Tim Driscoll is Professor of Epidemiology and Occupational Medicine at the University of Sydney.