Longer Work Weeks Increase Risk of Cancer, Heart Disease in Women

Women averaging 60-hour work weeks found to be at greater risk for a number of chronic diseases.

Women who averaged 60-hour work weeks or more over 3 decades face triple the risk of developing arthritis, cancer, diabetes, and heart issues, according to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

“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,” said lead study author Allard Dembe. “People don't think that much about how their early work experiences affect them down the road. Women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are setting themselves up for problems later in life.”

Researchers collected data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, which includes interviews with more than 12,000 Americans born between 1957 and 1964. When researchers analyzed interviews from approximately 7500 people, they found that men with long work hours fared much better than women.

Data was examined from survey participants who were at least 40-years-old in 1998, which is when the interview started including questions about health status and chronic condition. During the study, researchers averaged the self-reported hours of work each week over 32 years.

They then compared the hours worked to the incidence of 8 chronic diseases: arthritis or rheumatism, asthma, cancer (except skin cancer), chronic lung disease including bronchitis or emphysema, diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar. The results were also examined by gender.

The results of the study showed that there was a minority of full-time workers who put in 40 hours or less a week. There were 56% of participants who worked an average of 41 to 50 hours, 13% who averaged 51 to 60 hours, and 3% who averaged more than 60 hours.

For women, there was a strong and clear relationship between long work hours and arthritis, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Men with long work hours had higher incidence of arthritis but no reports of chronic disease.

Additionally, men who worked 41 to 50 hours per week had a lower risk of heart disease, depression, and lung disease compared with men who worked 40 hours or less.

“The early onset and identification of chronic disease may not only reduce individuals’ life expectancy and quality of life, but also increase heath care costs in the long term,” the study authors wrote.

Since the study only addresses chronic disease in patients 40- or 50-years-old, the study only pertains to the early onset of the disease and does not reveal the potential association between long work hours and lifetime risks, which could reveal striking information.

A limitation to the study was that it relied on average hours worked per week, but did not provide information about the differences between people who consistently worked long hours and those who had careers with long hours at first, but ended up having more time later. Furthermore, the study did not address the potential differences between discretionary overtime and mandatory overtime.

“It could make a difference,” Dembe said. “You might still be working hard, but the fact that it’s your choice might help you stay healthier.”