Study reveals that women are literally working themselves to death

Long workweeks and copious amounts of stress aren’t good for anyone’s health, but new research has found that workweeks of 40 hours or more can be especially bad for women—and the reason why is depressing.

Pulling data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, researchers from The Ohio State University and Mayo Clinic tracked the work and health histories of 7,492 men and women over the course of 32 years. The purpose of the study was to determine how full-time jobs affect our health over a long period of time, and whether gender plays a role. For the study, researchers looked specifically at eight conditions: heart disease, failure, or other heart problems; cancer of any kind (except skin); arthritis; diabetes; chronic lung disease; asthma; depression; and high blood pressure.

After analyzing the data, the researchers discovered that working long hours (40+ or 51+ hours per week) was significantly associated with elevated risks for four types of the chronic conditions:

  • Heart disease risk was elevated for people working 51 or more hours per week.
  • Non-skin cancer risk was elevated for people working 51 or more hours per week.
  • Arthritis risk was elevated for people working 40 or more hours per week.
  • Diabetes was more likely to be reported by people who worked more than 40 hours per week.

But when the researchers broke the findings down by gender, they found a startling correlation: The health risks associated with long workweeks were much greater for women than men.

“For men, long hour work appeared only to affect the risk of contracting arthritis. No adverse effects were found for other conditions,” explain the researchers in the study. “In fact, working moderately long hours (41 or 50 hours per week) was actually associated with less risk of contracting heart disease, chronic lung disease, or depression.”

For women, on the other hand, the side effects of working long hours were much more dire. For example, working 60 or more hours per week tripled the risk of diabetes, cancer, heart trouble, and arthritis in women. The researchers also found an association between hypertension and asthma among women working 51 to 60 hours per week.

So why do long hours take a different toll on the body based on gender? Before you shout “women are the weaker sex,” consider this: The researchers hypothesize that one reason women are experiencing more adverse health affects is because, beyond carrying a full-time job, women are also saddled with the brunt of housework and childrearing—what many sociologists refer to as the “second shift”—which increases their work time and stress levels.

“Research indicates women generally assume greater family responsibilities and thus may be more likely to experience inter-role conflict and overload compared to men,” explain the researchers. “Therefore, when women work long hours, they may experience more time pressure and stress than men, and their health consequently might be more affected by working long hours, especially when considered over a long timeframe.” (A commercial out of India released earlier this year highlighted this second shift beautifully.)

Another stressor that women are more likely to face is exposure to “negative psychosocial work characteristics” in the workplace, explain the researchers. These negative characteristics can include experiencing a lack of control, a lack of learning opportunities, a lack of upward mobility leading to job monotony, and a greater likelihood of being placed in jobs with low substantive complexity. This refers to how much intellectual and cognitive functioning is needed to perform a job. In a nutshell, jobs afforded to women may be unsatisfying and rife with sexist obstacles.

“Working long hours increases women’s exposure to these negative work characteristics, which might contribute to their overall burden of impaired health and chronic disease,” write the researchers. It’s worth noting that women in this study were tracked from 1978 to 2009, when the glass ceiling was even harder to break than it is now.

So not only do women have to take on most domestic duties in addition to their full-time job, but their full-time job may not be as rewarding as it is for men. That’s what you call a lose-lose. So how do we fix it?

The obvious answer is for employers to treat women equally—and for women to find a partner with whom they can share household and childrearing responsibilities. But the authors also suggest that employers can help by implementing social policies that specifically help unload the burden women face working double duty. This can include scheduling flexibility, childcare programs, more paid time off for maternity leave, the ability to work from home, and more paid sick leave.

Indeed, we’ve already seen how parents struggle more in the U.S. than any other country in the Western world, in large part because America doesn’t have as many social policies in place to help them juggle work, life, and family. Considering women in the U.S. still do most of the childrearing, it’s no wonder women are also suffering more when it comes to longterm health.

On that note, I’d like to formally take this moment to pitch a four-day workweek—for science, of course.