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Jeb Bush’s ‘people need to work longer hours’ idea would be terrible for our health

American workers need help with finding a healthier work-life balance. They don’t need to be told to work longer and harder.

Jeb Bush: "We have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours."
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush believes that getting Americans to work longer hours would be good for the economy.

Maybe. Maybe not. But it certainly would be terrible for our health.

Americans, of course, already work much longer hours than most other industrialized nations in the world. According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, Americans employed full time report working an average of 47 hours a week. And almost 40 percent say they average more than 50 hours of work a week.

That’s not good for our physical or mental health. Here are just a few reasons why:

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Working long hours is associated with a higher risk of heart disease. In 2012, an international team of researchers published a meta-analysis of 12 earlier studies on the impact on the heart of working long hours (more than 10 hours daily and up to 65 hours per week). The studies involved more than 22,000 mostly male, middle-aged workers from seven high-income countries, including the United States. 

The analysis found an almost two-fold increase in the risk of heart disease, especially angina and heart attacks, among people who worked long hours. The prolonged exposure to elevated levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, is likely a factor in this increased risk, say the study’s authors. High levels of such hormones are known to damage the heart and blood vessels — as well as other organs and tissues throughout the body.

Working long hours is associated with an increased risk of becoming depressed. A 2012 study, which followed more than 2,000 middle-aged British civil servants for six years, found that putting in long hours at the office increased the likelihood of the workers becoming depressed — even if the work being done wasn’t perceived by the worker as being that stressful.

Specifically, the study found that the civil servants who worked an average of at least 11 hours a day were about two-and-a-half times more likely to experience a major depressive episode than their office colleagues whose workdays averaged “only” seven or eight hours. That higher risk held even after adjusting for a host of factors, such as physical health, smoking, job strain and social support at work. 

Interestingly, the study found that only junior and mid-level civil servants who worked long hours were at a higher risk of become depressed. Long hours had little impact on the mental health of employees in the top-tiered, higher-paid jobs.

Working long hours is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. People who do manual or other low-paying work for more than 55 hours a week are 30 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than their peers who work 35 to 40 hours a week, according to a 2014 meta-analysis. The findings held even after excluding shift workers and adjusting for such factors as age, gender, obesity and physical activity.

The meta-analysis analyzed data from four published and 19 unpublished studies involving more than 222,000 workers in the United States, Europe, Australia and Japan. They were followed for an average of seven and a half years.

The meta-analysis found no association between long workweeks and type 2 diabetes among higher socioeconomic groups, however.

Needed: better work-life balance

Of course, these are all observational studies. None provides solid proof that working long hours causes health problems.

Still, these (and other findings on the topic) are more than troubling, particularly given how many Americans are now struggling with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression and other chronic illnesses. 

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American workers need help with finding a healthier work-life balance. They don’t need to be told to work longer and harder. They’re already doing that, and to the probable detriment of their health.