It’s perhaps no surprise that spending a very long time at work, and working when many people are relaxing—for example, on the weekend—would lead to a less happy life overall. But a new study of workers in the UK has found that long-hours cultures and antisocial working hours affect the genders in particular ways. Women, the researchers found, are more adversely affected by working very long hours, while weekend work impacts both men and women, but differently.
A global, 24/7 economy, where permanent work might be supplemented or replaced by “gig economy”-type flexible working, has increasingly meant people working outside “normal office hours,” the researchers wrote. That has health impacts. Women who worked particularly long hours—defined as 55 hours or more per week—as well as those who worked most or every weekend, were significantly more likely to display depressive symptoms than those who worked full-time but fewer hours, or those who worked part-time, the research found.
Data were drawn from the UK Household Longitudinal Study, focusing on a subset of data from 2010-2012 that included 11,215 men and 12,188 women. The study, lead-authored by academics at University College London, was published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
Men in the study tended to work longer hours than the women, with almost half working longer than 35-40 hours, which was used in the study as the benchmark of a “standard” working week. Less than a quarter of women worked over the standard week hours, and half worked part time (compared to only 15% of men). Among men, working even the longest hours hours wasn’t associated with any significant increase in depressive symptoms, measured using a health questionnaire designed to study psychological distress.
The researchers took into account other factors, including education level, marital status, the physicality of people’s jobs, chronic illness, and whether the subjects had children. Though it’s not touched on in this study, women with children are more likely to choose part-time work—often to the detriment of career and pay progression—while their male partners tend to work full-time, which accounts for some of that asymmetry. The UCL study found that if women were married and had children, they were less likely to work very long hours, while men in the same situation were more likely to.
Over two-thirds of the men and half the women worked weekends. Working weekends did have an effect on men’s wellbeing, but only when other factors were accounted for. Men with “poor psychosocial working conditions”—for example, being unhappy with their pay or their job—who also worked weekends were significantly more likely to be depressed than the rest of the population.
The researchers hypothesized that women who work very long hours might be working in male-dominated industries, while those working weekends were likely to be engaged in low-paid and arduous jobs like working on public transport, cleaning, and care-giving.
They also noted that a large swathe of work goes unaccounted for: The work women do outside of their employment.
“Previous studies have found that once unpaid housework and caring is accounted for, women work longer than men on average, and that this has been linked to poorer physical health,” the authors wrote. Some women in the study are likely working very long hours, and then going home to childcare, housework, and other domestic duties, which the authors noted could be usefully studied in further research.