Science says working more than 39 hours a week is bad for you

Barangaroo in Sydney’s inner-city. William West/AFP/Getty Images

Putting in long hours at the office seems normal with projects to finish, paperwork to complete and those numbers to compile for the monthly meeting.

In Australia, about two in three work more than 40 hours a week at their full-time jobs.

Now science has confirmed that those who do more than 39 hours are putting their health at risk.

Research from the Australian National University (ANU) shows the work limit for a healthy life should be set at 39 hours a week instead of the 48-hour limit set internationally about 80 years ago.

The death by suicide last year of a 24-year-old Japanese woman, after working 105 overtime hours in one month, sparked an international debate on long working hours.

“Long work hours erode a person’s mental and physical health, because it leaves less time to eat well and look after themselves properly,” says Dr Huong Dinh from the ANU Research School of Population Health.

For women, Dinh says the healthy work limit is 34 hours a week once their other commitments are considered.

For men, it is up to 47 hours a week because they generally spend less time on domestic duties than women.

The researchers say Australia needs to do more to change attitudes to work and to support men to take time at home without penalty or prejudice.

Australians also need to dispel the widespread belief that people need to work long hours to do a good job.

“Despite the fact that women on average are as skilled as men, women on average have lower paid jobs and less autonomy than men, and they spend much more time on care and domestic work,” says Dinh.

“Given the extra demands placed on women, it’s impossible for women to work long hours often expected by employers unless they compromise their health.”

The study, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, used data from about 8,000 Australian adults as part of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey.

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