Women who work more than 40 hours see rising risk of chronic diseases

A new study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine spells out bad news for women who work more than 40 hours a week over the course of their careers: they could be at much higher risk for early onsets of diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.

The study’s authors looked at work and health data from more than 7,500 people in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979. The information included interviews with people from 1957 and 1964, so the researchers were able to judge the effects of work on health over the course of 32 years of the subjects’ careers.

The analysis showed poor health outcomes for women aged 40 to 50 start to rise when women are working more than 40 hours per week and are especially bad when they’re putting in more than 60 hours. Those women are at three times the risk of developing heart disease, cancer, diabetes and arthritis.

The majority of workers (both men and women) in the study were working hours that could be considered in the risk zone. Researchers found that 72 percent maintained 40-hour-plus work weeks throughout the 32 years the study recorded.

But the study authors didn’t see the same correlation between long hours and bad health for the men interviewed in the study. Working more than 40 hours per week seemed to put them at a greater risk for arthritis only, but not cancer, diabetes or heart disease. In fact, the men who worked 41 to 50 hours per week actually had a lower incidence of heart disease, lung disease and depression than the men who worked less than 40 hours.

The study’s lead researcher, Ohio State University health services management professor Allard Dembe, ScD, said these results could be explained by women’s stereotypically higher workload outside of professional roles. When combined with long hours at a job, the stress can set the stage for developing chronic diseases.

“Women—especially women who have to juggle multiple roles—feel the effects of intensive work experiences and that can set the table for a variety of illnesses and disability,” he said in a statement.

Dembe also advised that younger women pay attention to their workweek hours—maintaining a smaller workload even in their 20s and 30s could set them up for better health later in life.

Plus, he pointed out, more serious early-onset diseases end up costing women (and employers) more money in healthcare costs, lost hours and a decline in quality of life in the long run. It’s unclear if that later cost is enough to negate the extra hours worked earlier in the women’s careers.