Tell your boss: healthy work limit is 39 hours a week

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On average, people who work more than this are putting their health at risk – although there are differences between men and women, say Aussie researchers

New research published in the journal Social Science & Medicine says the work limit for a healthy life should be set at 39 hours a week, instead of the 48-hour week set internationally about 80 years ago.

This 48-hour limit evolved from a workforce that was largely male and enabled by women’s domestic work and caregiving, argue the authors.

With gender composition of the workforce changing and more women (as well as some men) combining caregiving with paid work, the authors decided to explore the health ramifications of long work hours.

Lead researcher Dr Huong Dinh, from the Australian National University’s Research School of Population Health, says about two in three Australians in full-time employment work more than 40 hours a week.

“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 Dinh says.

He also says long work hours are a bigger problem for women who do more unpaid work at home than men. Due to more commitments outside of work, Dr Dinh argues the healthy work limit for women should be less.

“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,” Dr Dinh explains.

“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.”

Dr Dinh says a healthy workload for women is 34 hours per week once their other commitments are considered.

Meanwhile, the healthy work limit for men reaches up to 47 hours a week, generally because they spend much less time on care or domestic work.

On average across both sexes, the researchers calculated an overall threshold of 39 hours per week beyond which mental health declines.

The research was based on data from about 8,000 Australian adults as part of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey.

Co-researcher Professor Lyndall Strazdins says Australia needs to resolve widespread problems that affect work- and home-life balance.

“Australia needs to do more to change attitudes to work and to support men to take time to care without penalty or prejudice,” she says.

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

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