What you need to know about the negative health effects of long work hours

long work hours
Debra Villar

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written on April 21, 2017

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average Australian full time worker spends about 40.7 hours a week at work. However many spend far more time working, whether it’s emails on the weekend, or long work hours that stretch into the evening.

In the modern workplace, technology makes it easier to clock up long work hours and continue working even after you’ve left the office – answering emails remotely and on the weekends. How can HR managers balance the needs of the business while ensuring that the negative consequences of working longer hours don’t impact on employee health?

Increasingly, organisations are looking at alternative working practices to temper the effects of longer working hours and perpetual connectivity. We know, for example, that flexible work practices are gaining popularity.

The number of Australians working from home increased from 321,000 in 2006 to 354,000 in 2011, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. This will most likely continue to rise, since a new study by economists at Princeton and Harvard has found that employees are willing to take a pay cut in return for flexible working.

The six hour work day

Another approach is the option to mandate reduced work hours.

Several Swedish companies have introduced a shorter working day – claiming the result is a happier, healthier and more productive workforce. However, the implementation of the six-hour work week has in fact produced mixed reviews. Some have complained that employees on a strict six hour work schedule are becoming robot-like, with few breaks, no social media and no social time with colleagues allowed or encouraged.

Some companies that have adopted the six-hour work day have had to employ more people to cover shifts, particularly in hospitals and nursing homes – and therefore increased their expenditure.

Longer work hours: what’s the impact on employee health?

But how does the inability to disconnect from work and long work hours impact on our happiness, health and wellbeing?

According to research by the Institute of Employment Studies into the impacts of long work hours (working over 40 hours a week), various negative effects includes decreased productivity, poor performance, health problems, and lower employee motivation.

Other negative health effects are:

  • Musculoskeletal disorders. Sitting or standing for long periods in the same position can cause low back pain, neck pain, RSI injuries and headaches. Promoting movement throughout the working day in the form of stretches, frequent breaks and exercise will provide relief for the most common aches and pains.
  • Work/life imbalance. Time for family and friends is an essential part of feeling fulfilled and satisfied at work. Providing that time for staff will increase happiness and in turn productivity.
  • Lack of sleep. Increased working hours can cause reduced sleep hours. The effects of sleep deprivation include fatigue, increased stress and weight gain.
  • Increase stress levels are also associated with long working hours. Stress can cause heart conditions, mental health disorders, high blood pressure and more.

However HR leaders and managers can plan for times of high demand by placing some systems in place in order to prevent burnout, such as:

  • Health and wellness programs. The best corporate health programs are holistic in nature. They provide tools for individual employees to better take care of their health and wellbeing during  busy times where longer hours are required.
  • Guide your team to better time management. Attention span has decreased in recent years, so small spurts of work followed by either movement, stretching or a water break, will not only increase productivity but also promote good health and injury prevention.
  • Discourage multitasking. A study from the International Journal of Human Computer Studies found that multitasking has the opposite effect on productivity and can even be detrimental to our health, as it alters function in areas of the brain which govern emotion and cognitive function.

The effects of long hours on our health are hard to measure since predisposing factors need to be taken into account. However, research has shown that companies who provide flexible working hours and have in place a health and wellness program, create a more dynamic, productive and healthier workplace.

Dr. Debra Villar is a speaker, author and the director of Complete Corporate Wellness. A company that provides health and wellness solutions. For more information visit completecorporatewellness.com.au

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