How much should you work to maintain a healthy life?

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According to recent research by the Australian National University (ANU), a healthy work load is 39 hours a week. Working more than this can put your health at risk. It seems that women are more sensitive to this than men becuase of their other domestic responsibilities. In a workforce that is seeing a larger representation of working women, this is concerning for organisations and their people alike.

Work hours and your health
This Australian study used data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey.

Findings included:

  • Work hours are not uniformly bad for mental health but have a distinct tipping point.

  • Because women’s time is constrained they have lower work hour-health thresholds.

  • On average, the overall healthy work threshold is 39 hours/week, after which mental health declines.

  • Estimate thresholds for men and women vary when other commitments are considered:
    •  limits for men = 43.5 hours, for women = 38 hours
    • these are influenced by level of care responsibilities and domestic time constraints
      (Ding, Strazdins & Welsh, 2017).

The research suggests, long work hours means workers compromise their health. The difference in healthy work thresholds for women is attributed to the fact that women on average have lower paid jobs and less autonomy than men, and spend much more time on care responsibilities and domestic work.

Long work hours erode a person’s mental and physical health, because it leaves less time to eat well and look after themselves properly
~ Dr Huong Dinh, Lead researcher

No surprises there. But wait – there’s more.

Long work hours impact women’s health more
Another study by Ohio University, revealed that women who put in long hours for the bulk of their careers may pay a steep price: life-threatening illnesses, including heart disease and cancer. It is suggested that the trouble starts when women work more than 40 hours a week, but is even more critical when they put in 50 hours per week. Work weeks that average 60 hours or more over three decades appear to triple the risk of diabetes, cancer, heart trouble and arthritis.

The same outcome is not seen in men. They are better able to tolerate long hours without the same deleterious effects reported. In fact men working 40+ hours/week had lower risk of heart disease, lung disease and depression than those who worked 40 hours or fewer. Why?

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.
~ Allard Dembe, Lead researcher

It seems that it is the age-old problem of domestic work and caring responsibilities that interfere with women’s ability to work longer hours unencumbered by these commitments.  It is a numbers game. There are men in the workplace who are carrying these same responsibilities, or the lion’s share of them for their households. There are just not enough of them to tip the scales.

Contemporary work practices
With the changing nature of workplace composition and our enlightened times, you would think that this might have changed. Or would you? There is nothing wrong with women being the main carers. It is just difficult to have it all. Those who want a career have to have extra “help” so that they are not faced with continuous juggle of responsibilities. That is not always an affordable option.

From recent work I have done with women in professional services environments, where long work hours are part of the routine, the decisions about family and career are a point of tension. Junior professionals look at the more senior women around them and the struggles in balancing everything. Some wonder if it is worth it. Others delay the family decision, because of work constraints.

Managing workload is a double-edged sword
Maintaining a career and managing workloads is not a straightforward thing. When good work opportunities arise, people want to take them and demonstrate their capability. Unfortunately, in-so-doing many get pulled into the long work-hour habit. With this research it seems workers are damned if they do (the hours) and damned if they don’t (career limitations).

What these studies are suggesting though is that long work hours that are established in early career years may indeed pave the way for continued work in this way. Consistent work at this rate is what correlates with poor health outcomes. So becoming adept at managing workloads is important. Likewise organisational arrangements to maintain healthy workload levels is worth considering. The real challenge lies in finding suitable work hour arrangements with sufficient flexibility to satisfy organisational requirements and individual needs.

What is the solution?
Is there a way through this? Is there a workplace design that can accommodate the requisite variety of work hours for its work force, yet still meet its commercial needs? If you know places that get this right, I would love to hear from you.


Crane, Misti. 2016. “Women’s long work hours linked to alarming increases in cancer, heart disease” in Ohio State University News,

Dinh, Huong, Strazdins, Lyndall & Welsh, Jennifer. 2017. “Hour-glass ceilings: Work-hour thresholds, gendered health inequities” in Social Science & Medicine, Volume 176, March 2017, Pages 42–51.

Knapton, Sarah. 2016. “Working long hours harms women but protects men, study shows” in The Telegraph, 16 June 2016.

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