Does Working Time Affect Workers’ Health?

Remote workers face greater health risks of working longer hours, particularly during the pandemic.
  • A study of European workers suggests that the amount of hours worked can significantly impact workers’ health. 
  • Remote workers are at an increased risk of working longer hours, particularly during the pandemic. 
  • This article looks at the impact of working hours on wellness, and 7 ways to manage it. 

The answer: 

Yes.  

That is according to a recent study of European workers. The paper presenting the results The Effect of Working Hours on Health, by Ines Berniell and Jan Bietenbeck, found that work time negatively affects the health of workers.  

According to the study, the percentage of workers saying work negatively impacts their health rose from 19% for those working less than 30 hours per week to 30% for those working at least 40 hours per week.  

The authors argue that working time may affect health because of direct and indirect impacts on the job, such as:  

  • Strenuous work leading to exhaustion – direct impact 
  • Less time available at home to address health issues – indirect impact.  

Berniell and Bietenbeck drew on data from a longitudinal health survey that allowed them to follow a sample of male workers from the pre-reform—which stipulated the standard working week to be 39 hours — to the post-reform period, which stipulated the standard working week to be 35 hours (1998-2002) in France.  

“The results show that the reform reduced smoking among treated workers by six percentage points, corresponding to 16 percent of the baseline mean.” 

Furthermore, the results show that reduced working hours lowered white-collar workers’ BMI and improved the self-reported health of blue- and white-collar workers.  

“Our estimates show that working time negatively affects health behaviors and health: four years after the reform was initiated, treated workers who saw their hours reduced were 6 percentage points less likely to smoke, corresponding to a reduction of 16 percent of the pre-reform mean. The reform also appears to have lowered BMI and increased self-reported health.” 

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Previous studies had found a negative association between working hours and health outcomes like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and mental health. Research in Sweden had also found that reduced working hours can also improve sleep quality, mental fatigue, and heart and respiratory symptoms.  

Berniell and Beitenbeck argue that “shortening the statutory workweek could potentially lead to important health benefits.”  

Long Hours and Remote Work  

Remote workers are at an increased risk of working longer hours, especially when they first start to work remotely.  

Recent surveys have found that remote work guilt is real, leading many remote workers to avoid taking breaks and working longer hours. Since they are at home, many remote workers have reported feeling the need to be always available. In fact, a 2020 study found that the average work week is now an hour longer than before the coronavirus pandemic.  

Needless to say, this can be detrimental to the physical and mental health of workers; it can also lead to increased risk of worker burnout

Given that remote work is expected to be the norm now and in the future, company leaders need to prioritize worker health.  

What Can Employers Do? 

  • Discourage the always on culture among remote employees and encourage workers to power off.  
  • Allow for, and encourage, quick breaks throughout the day.  
  • Avoid setting back-to-back virtual meetings.  
  • Encourage workers to take meal breaks and discourage the habit of eating while working.  
  • Allow for more flexibility in workers’ schedules. 
  • Be mindful of time zones.  
  • Set clear expectations of when workers are expected to be available.  

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