The idea that we need to work long hours and commit to lots of (often unpaid) overtime is a problematic aspect of modern working culture. According to the latest figures from the TUC, workers in the UK put in more than £32 billion worth of unpaid overtime per year, with more than five million employees working a total of two billion unpaid hours.
But while putting in more hours may seem like part-and-parcel of working life nowadays, we need to remain aware of the dangers of stretching ourselves too thin, including the risks of developing burnout. The condition, which was officially recognised as an “occupational syndrome” by the World Health Organisation in 2019, occurs when chronic stress in the workplace isn’t managed properly, and can result in feelings of fatigue and a general lack of motivation.
Overwork carries other risks as well as the threat of burnout. According to a major study, women who regularly work 55-hour weeks are more likely to suffer from depression than both men who work the same hours and women who work a more regular schedule.
The research, which was conducted by University College London and Queen Mary University of London, was published in the BMJ’s Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. After surveying over 20,000 adults and taking age, income, health and job characteristics into account, researchers found that women who worked extra-long hours had 7.3% more depressive symptoms than those who worked 35-40 hours.
However, men who work the same hours were no more likely to show signs of depression – leading researchers to suggest that women’s mental health could be affected by having to shoulder the lion’s share of domestic chores as well as working long hours.
“This is an observational study, so although we cannot establish the exact causes, we do know 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 and overwhelming responsibilities,” explained Gill Weston of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, PhD candidate and lead author of the study.
Researchers analysed data from Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS), which has been tracking the health and wellbeing of a representative sample of 40,000 households across the UK since 2009.
They found that women who worked for all or most weekends were also more likely than men to experience debilitating low moods, although both genders were affected by having to work on Saturdays and Sundays.
Weston pointed out that the study’s findings reflect the fact that “women in general are more likely to be depressed than men”. A 2016 report by the Mental Health Foundation stated that 19.7% of people in the UK aged 16 or older displayed signs of anxiety or depression – and this percentage was higher among women (22.5%) than men (16.8%).
However, gender isn’t the only factor that influences people’s mental health – and, importantly, it’s not just middle class women in high-flying jobs who feel the strain of working long hours.
“Independent of their working patterns, we also found that workers with the most depressive symptoms were older, on lower incomes, smokers, in physically demanding jobs, and who were dissatisfied at work,” Weston said.
She added: “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.”
This article was first published in October 2019, and has been updated throughout.