How a shorter workweek could extend your lifespan
The number of hours you log at work each week can have a significant impact on your health and your longevity — especially if you overwork.
Based on full- and part-time workers’ hours, people in the United States work an average eight hours every week day, adding up to 40 hours per week, according to 2017 data from the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Working more than that has been tied to some negative health outcomes, especially for “individuals who work extended hours or very long hours. We’re talking people who do 50, 60, 70, 80 hours per week,” said Azizi Seixas, an assistant professor at NYU Langone Health, who focuses on sleep and stress research.
“Generally, that’s associated with a host of mental and psychological health issues as well as physical health issues and the third one, which we don’t really hear a lot about, relational health issues,” he said.
Each of those aspects of your health — mental, physical and personal relationships — can play a role in how long you live. Here are four ways that working fewer hours each week could help boost your longevity.
1. You could de-stress.
“Longer workweeks increase a person’s risk for psychosocial stress responses and depressive symptoms,” said Christian Benedict, a researcher in Uppsala University’s Department of Neuroscience in Sweden.
In other words, long workweeks can stress you out, and that’s not good for your mental health.
A study published in the journal Psychological Medicine in 2011 found that working more than 55 hours per week predicted subsequent depressive and anxiety symptoms among 2,960 British people ages 44 to 66 who were employed full-time.
“A 1.66-fold risk of depressive symptoms and a 1.74-fold risk of anxiety symptoms among employees working more than 55 hours a week, compared with employees working 35 to 40 hours a week, has been observed,” Benedict said of the study, in which he was not involved.
A paper published in the British Medical Journal in 2015 found that alcohol consumption was more likely to rise to risky levels among adults who work more than 48 hours a week compared with those who work average hours. That paper involved reviewing and analyzing 63 previously published studies on the association between long working hours and alcohol use.
“Finally, if you work all day, you may have no chance to pay attention to your worries until you go to bed. Going through your worries while in bed is however one of the worst things you can do to your sleep,” Benedict said.
“Stress and anxiety, in turn, cause difficulties with falling and staying asleep,” he said.
2. You could catch more Z’s.
As you sleep, you enter a biological process in which certain hormones are released to repair cells and make sure that your body and brain function properly the next day.
“During sleep, the brain clears out metabolic waste products accumulating during wakefulness, which is important for the maintenance of brain health,” Benedict said.
“Studies have also shown that newly learned information is consolidated during sleep, especially those relevant for future behavior,” he said. “There is also evidence to suggest that sleep promotes processes involved in creativity and problem-solving. Finally, during sleep, parts of the brain recover that are involved in decision-making, stress resilience, learning, planning, vigilance and impulse control.”
Car crashes, industrial disasters and medical and occupational errors can increase when we tire, not to mention decreases in work productivity and efficiency.
Long work hours and lack of sleep may lead to poor performance, poor memory, inability to process new information, judgment issues, difficulties being alert and poor concentration, Seixas said.
“The only two behaviors that seem to enhance the process of clearing out the cellular debris and proteins that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia from the brain is physical activity, to a certain extent, but primarily sleep,” he said.
“When you have an excess of blockage and buildup of protein debris in the brain, what happens is that that has been associated with poor brain function.
“Sleep is important to maintain important homeostasis biological processes — maintaining balance in the body,” he said. “What does that mean? It means that your liver, your heart, all these organs can’t be working at 100% throughout the day. There needs to be a period where they recuperate and regenerate, and so sleep is an important activity for that.”
Getting less than the recommended amount of sleep on a regular basis has been tied to an increased risk of early death.
A longitudinal study of 10,308 British civil servants, published in the journal Sleep in 2007, found that those who reduced their sleep from seven to five hours or fewer a night were almost twice as likely to die from all causes, especially cardiovascular disease. The study also showed an increase in sleep duration, to more than 8 hours, was associated with an increase in mortality.
As it turns out, an increased risk of cardiovascular disease has been also linked with long workweeks, Seixas said.
3. You could improve your heart health.
Observational studies suggest that there’s about a 40% increased risk of coronary heart disease among adults who work long hours, as in more than 50 a week or more than 10 a day, according to a paper published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2012.
The paper reviewed and analyzed 12 previously published studies on long working hours and health risks, including a total of 22,518 study participants.
“By extending your work hours, you have less time to sleep,” Seixas said.
“We need about seven to eight hours per day in order to get optimal health benefits, give or take depending on the individual,” he said. “But if you’re not getting that, that can lead to an increased risk for obesity as well as increased risk for diabetes, particularly Type 2 diabetes, and an increased risk for hypertension.”
You can be at increased risk for cardiovascular and cardio-metabolic health conditions, as well as musculoskeletal issues such as back and neck pain, headaches and vision problems, Seixas said.
Women who work an average of 60 hours or more per week over a 32-year period may have elevated risks of diabetes, non-skin cancer, heart disease and arthritis, according to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2016.
Specifically, workweeks that averaged 60 hours or more over three decades appeared to be associated with triple the risk of those chronic diseases, the study showed, and heart disease and cancer are the top two leading causes of death in the United States.
The study involved data on 7,492 adults, covering 32 years of job history between 1978 and 2009. The data came from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.
4. You could spend more time with loved ones.
Overall, when you work less, “you have more time for your family and time to engage in health-promoting leisure activities, exercise, meeting friends and so forth,” Benedict said.
Engaging with loved ones can help battle loneliness, which has been found to be somewhat detrimental for longevity.
A study published in the medical journal JAMA in 2012 found that among 1,604 people older than 60, loneliness was a predictor of functional decline and early death. Of participants, 43% were classified as lonely. Among those who felt lonely, 22.8% died during the study’s six-year followup period, compared with 14.2% of their peers.
Loneliness has become such a significant public health problem that in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness this year in a drive to tackle social isolation, which estimates suggest is endured by 9 million Britons.
‘When are you really productive?’
Still, there can be some downsides to working less than average, Benedict said.
“Working fewer hours per week typically results in greater work intensity, which might offset positive effects of short workweeks,” he said. “Labor is not only a source of income, allowing material needs to be satisfied; it also provides non-pecuniary benefits like status and recognition.”
All in all, research suggests that the best working amount can be determined on a case-by-case basis and can vary based on your needs.
“You need to figure out, when are you really productive?” CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta said.
“The key is to try to figure out when are those productive hours for you and try and do your most important things then,” Gupta said.
“If you can spend a few minutes actually considering the task at hand, if you work smarter, not longer, I think a lot of things will happen,” he said. “You’re going to get more done, and you’re going to be able to spend more time not actually working, and that will certainly help you live to 100.”