Women who spend many years working long hours have significantly higher chances of developing heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases, according to new research.
The study found that women who worked more than 60 hours per week were nearly three times more likely to develop heart disease, non-skin cancers, arthritis and diabetes than those who worked less. Researchers at the Center for HOPES at Ohio State University’s College of Public Health and the Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery at Mayo Clinic conducted the research.
Even among women who worked fewer than 60 hours per week, the odds of developing the chronic ailments grew as women’s work hours increased, according to the study—a trend that did not hold true for men.
Men who worked longer hours had an increased risk only of developing arthritis, and actually had a decreased risk of heart disease when they worked “moderately long hours” of 41 to 50 hours per week.
“Among women, the results were striking,” the study said. “The observed risk was much larger among women than among men.”
Women likely have an increased risk of certain chronic conditions because they tend to have more stress in their lives than men do, said Dr. Stuart Zarich, chief of cardiology at Bridgeport Hospital.
Men and women “probably have equal stressors at work,” he said. But “the woman still gets the home duties that the men don’t get, when they’re working the same hours.”
Despite evolving gender roles, women often are responsible for most family related tasks, and it takes a toll, Zarich said.
“Their days are obviously longer and more stressful,” he said.
For the study, published online in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers examined data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth that covered 32 years of job history (1978 to 2009) for 7,492 respondents. Participants, who had an average age of 49.6 years, were interviewed once a year between 1979 and 1994 and then every two years from 1996 to 2010.
Researchers averaged respondents’ self-reported work hours over the 32-year span and compared the time spent working with incidences of heart disease, cancer, arthritis, diabetes, chronic lung disease, depression and high blood pressure.
Previous studies have shown a link between long work hours and poor health outcomes, but this one was unique because it examined outcomes in individuals over such a long time period.
The study found no difference in the risk of chronic lung disease, asthma, depression or high blood pressure based on work hours.
“There are a lot of ways that working long hours could directly or indirectly impact” health, according to Dr. Carrie Redlich, professor of medicine and director of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program at Yale School of Medicine.
People who work a lot, for instance, may have worse sleep habits and poorer diets than those working less, in addition to feeling more stress—all of which can affect their health, Redlich said.
The study didn’t pinpoint what exactly it was about working long hours that affected people’s health.
“If you’re working long hours, you’re putting a lot of demand on yourself,” said Alicia Dugan, assistant professor of medicine in UConn Health Division of Occupational & Environmental Medicine. “Your work is pulling from your physical, cognitive and emotional resources. The more your work drains your resources, the more stress you are likely to feel, and the more you could potentially have poor health outcomes.”
People who work long hours typically have less free time to engage in health behaviors like exercise, she added, and many don’t take time to unwind.
“It’s definitely more of a problem for women,” she said.
In the study, about 28 percent of the participants worked 30 to 40 hours per week, while 56 percent worked 41 to 50 hours a week, 13 percent worked 51 to 60 hours and 3 percent worked more than 60 hours a week.
Study authors advocate that, since women’s health may be disproportionately impacted by working long hours, employers should consider family friendly policies to help women manage their work and family demands.
“You always have to put your ambitions and what you want to achieve at work in combination with your work-life balance,” Zarich said.