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Medical News Today: Poor work-life balance leads to poor health later in life

Due to the increasing pressure of modern life and despite the adverse effects it has on our health, we tend to get less sleep and work more. A new study shows that a poor work-life balance in midlife may have negative consequences decades later.
[Man at desk surrounded by files holding his head in his hands]
Too much work has adverse health effects.

Several studies have shown that long working hours are bad for one’s health, with adverse effects on cardiovascular and mental health.

Conversely, flexible working hours and schedules that employees have more control over have been shown to have positive effects on health and well-being.

Despite this, many of us still have a poor work-life balance, and we tend to sleep less. In 1910, a “normal” sleeping schedule was considered an average of 9 hours per night, while today, this has fallen to around 7 hours.

Damaging effects include a higher risk of stroke, coronary heart disease, and mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

Some studies have shown that individuals who work 55 hours or more per week have a 1.3 times higher risk of stroke than those working standard hours.

Sleep deprivation has also been linked to cardiovascular disease and an increased risk of death, causing myocardial infarction and stroke.

Long working hours have also been associated with a higher risk of anxiety and depression. A 5-year study found the risk of developing depression in healthy individuals is 1.66 times higher in employees working more than 55 hours a week. The risk of anxiety was 1.74 times higher.

Despite the known adverse effects of sleep deprivation and prolonged working schedules, no study has examined the combined effect of these two factors on health-related quality of life (HRQoL).

How work-life balance in midlife affects health in later life

Researchers at The University of Jyväskylä in Finland wanted to determine the effects of midlife sleep deprivation and long working hours on physical functioning and overall HRQoL in later life.

The study looked specifically at the relationship between working hours and sleep duration.

Researchers monitored the HRQoL of 1,527 businessmen born between 1919-1934. They gathered data in 1974 and then again 26 years later.

The results of the study were published in Age and Ageing, the scientific journal of The British Geriatrics Society.

The study used the RAND-36 score to assess the HRQoL of white businessmen who worked more than 50 hours per week and slept less than 47 hours per week in midlife.

The RAND score is a simple, general survey tool comprising of 36 questions that medical care professionals and researchers use to evaluate care outcomes in adult patients. It relies on the respondents’ self-reporting.

The study surveyed working hours, sleep duration, and self-reported health issues.

Considering normal work hours as 50 hours a week and normal sleep hours as 47 hours a week, researchers combined work and sleep patterns to come up with four categories: normal work and normal sleep, long work and normal sleep, normal work and short sleep, and long work and short sleep.

In older age, participants scored lower on the RAND scale for physical functioning, vitality, and general health, compared with those who had normal work and sleep patterns.

Businessmen with long work hours but normal sleep patterns still had lower scores for physical functioning in older age. Even taking into account midlife smoking, and other unrelated health issues, the negative effect on physical functioning remained significant.

Findings likely to apply to wider populations

The study was motivated by the fact that modern-day businessmen are under a particular amount of pressure, with over 6 million people in Britain alone currently working more than 45 hours a week. However, the results of the study are likely to apply to other segments of the population.

A 2014 Gallup report notes that Americans work an average of 47 hours per week, which is almost a full workday more than the standard 9-5 schedule.

In fact, almost 4 in 10 Americans said they work at least 50 hours on a weekly basis.

The results of the study indicate that although the effects of a poor work-life balance may not be felt immediately, the consequences extend into older age.

Cutting down on work hours and getting plenty of rest as early in life as possible would mitigate adverse health effects in older age.

Read how working long hours and heavy lifting may impact women’s fertility.

Written by Ana Sandoiu

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