Careers

The worrying way that working long hours can impact women’s mental health

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Moya Crockett
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Researchers have a perturbing theory about why men just aren’t affected in the same way.  

It is a sad but perhaps unsurprising fact that employees in the UK work longer hours than anywhere else in Europe. On average, UK women spend more than 39 hours a week at work– almost two hours more than people in Denmark, where the average working week is 37.8 hours. And if you work in a busy, high-pressured job, it’s likely that you’re regularly putting in even more time in the office.

But while it’s easy to accept long hours as part and parcel of modern professional life – or the price we have to pay for successful careers – we should be wary of consistently burning the candle at both ends. Because according to a major new study, women who regularly work 55-hour weeks are more likely to suffer from depression than those who work more manageable hours.

The research, which was conducted by University College London and Queen Mary University of London, was published on 25 February 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. 

Do you regularly work 55 hours or more a week? 

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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.”

For advice and support on dealing with depression, visit the NHS Moodzone or Mind.

Images: Getty Images 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Contributing Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk and Deputy Editor of Stylist Loves, Stylist's daily email newsletter. Carrying a bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.