The daughter of a friend of mine recently left university and entered the world of work, taking on a temporary office job.
At the end of her first week, she phoned home in tears. “It’s horrible,” she complained to her mother, adding:
There’s no time to do anything else. I’m so tired when I get home in the evenings that all I can do is watch TV.
And then I have to get up early the next morning and do it all again. If this is what work is like, I don’t want to spend my whole life doing it.
Many of us might sympathise with her feelings of dismay. The daily grind of modern employment can make weekends, holidays and the prospect of retirement highly treasured prospects.
So is the equivalent of a four-day working week, as proposed by the UK’s Labour party, really such a bizarre idea?
Aside from the fact that working shorter hours might actually make us more productive, there is no doubt that it would enhance our well-being.
If you’re lucky, you might have a job that is stimulating and fulfilling. But I would argue that even then, work should not be the main aspect of your life, or its defining feature. Working 40 hours a week makes our lives narrow and constricted, meaning we lose sight of whole vistas of possibility and adventure.
There’s so much to learn in life, so many different ways to develop, so many experiences to absorb, so many activities to enjoy (including doing nothing). When we spend so much time working, it’s difficult to find time and energy for anything else.
A working history
After all, work as we know it is a relatively modern activity. For the whole history of the human race up until a few thousand years ago, human beings lived as hunter-gatherers. Their main job was to find food, and perhaps surprisingly, they didn’t have to work particularly hard to do this.
Some anthropologists have estimated that contemporary hunter-gatherers who follow the same simple lifestyle as our prehistoric ancestors only spend around four hours a day searching for food. The rest of the time is leisure time.
Life only really became difficult once our ancestors started farming. Grinding food out of the soil was a lot more labour intensive than hunting or picking fruit from trees.
Then came the industrial revolution, when human beings were imprisoned in factories and mills for almost all of their waking hours, treated as nothing more than objects of labour, working in appalling conditions for appalling wages, and usually dying at a young age.
Working conditions are far better now, at least in more economically developed parts of the world. But I think we still haven’t gone far enough in a positive direction.
We’re still living with the legacy of the industrial revolution, in thrall to a mistaken idea that work defines us and should be the primary pursuit of our lives. We’re still living as economic objects whose main value is what we can produce.
What’s the alternative, you might ask. If we didn’t work so hard, our economies would fail, and we would all be living in poverty. But this isn’t necessarily the case.
Less work, more sleep, better life
In continental Europe, working hours are significantly shorter than in the US and the UK, and productivity is actually higher. Countries like Holland and Denmark are more economically successful than the US or the UK. And not uncoincidentally, they also have higher levels of well-being.
Working less does not mean economic failure. In fact, the opposite may be true. It may be that longer working hours just make people tired and resentful, and therefore less productive. There is also evidence that too much work impairs our health, leading to poor sleep and an increased risk of conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Crucially, working less has many psychological benefits. It means less stress and anxiety. It means better relationships, because we spend time with our loved ones, and have more energy to give them.
Working less also enables us to experience the joys of doing nothing in particular.
It also gives us more opportunity to live authentically through following our own innate interests, so that we spend more time in the positive state that psychologists call “flow” (when we are intensely absorbed in enjoyable activities).
We have more time and energy to nurture our creativity, which also leads to a more meaningful and purposeful life.
Working less also enables us to experience the joys of doing nothing in particular. In my research, one of my areas of interest is individuals who undergo a life transformation following periods of intense turmoil or stress, or a close encounter with death. I call this “post-traumatic transformation”.
People who experience this often report that they feel more grateful for life, more connected to nature; that they have more authentic relationships and become more creative and spiritual.
Another change is that they are no longer so interested in work. They love to spend their time doing nothing in particular, just enjoying being in the moment and being alive in the world.
And perhaps we are at a point when we need to rethink our whole relationship with economics. It’s clear that the world’s population cannot keep producing and consuming material goods at the present rate.
The environmental effects are simply too severe. Our planet is already suffering the strain, and won’t be able to withstand much more damage.
A recent report by a think tank suggested that working less should be one of the tools we utilise to avert climate catastrophe.
The modern emphasis on work is completely out of proportion, and harmful to our well-being. One thing is for sure: if you spend nearly all your waking hours working, then it doesn’t matter whether you’re a millionaire businessman or a successful financial analyst. You’re not really so different from a factory worker in a 19th-century industrial town.
You are an economic object, whose life only has value in terms of the labour you perform. The only difference is that you have the freedom to change – and to make your life more meaningful and fulfilling.
The demands of operating a 24/7 globalised society is partially met by work patterns that elongate working hours and extend the working week.1 In eastern Asian countries the risk of karoshi (death due to overwork) has increased,2 3 while across EU countries atypical work hours have become a feature for a significant proportion of people.4
In the UK, there are concerns about unregulated and frequently unpaid overtime,5 and work-related stress, often linked to workload, accounts for millions of lost working days every year.6 Despite this, other than studies on shift work,7 few epidemiological studies have considered the impact of temporal work patterns on mental health.
While three found evidence of job stress or psychological strain among weekend workers relative to weekday workers,11–13 in the fourth there was no association between working weekends and depressive symptoms.14
Long work hours has attracted more research attention. Recent reviews and a meta-analysis concluded there were some adverse effects of long hours on depressive mood, but these were often small, non-significant, or greater for women.15–17
Research has shown that gender plays a significant role in the way that work is organised, experienced and rewarded, not least in terms of occupational segregation, job status, mobility, and inequality in earnings, but also in work attitudes, behaviour and social relations.18
There are also suggestions that men and women perceive and respond differently to work demands such as the quantity of work and time-pressures.19
Despite this and recommendations that studies about work and health should address gender differences,20 most studies on temporal work patterns focus only on men or do not separate men and women in their analysis.
Furthermore, although psychosocial work factors link to both working patterns and depression, few of the studies on temporal work patterns take them into account.21 Moreover, there is heterogeneity in the way that long hours are defined,22 with part-time workers sometimes categorised as the reference group despite part-time work being associated with health problems.23
A further limitation is that much of the existing research on UK workers relates to specific workplaces or occupations such as civil servants which, though informative, may not be representative of the general population of workers.24
To facilitate generalisability, disaggregate by gender, adjust for a range of covariates including psychosocial work factors, and use the standard working week of 35–40 hours and weekday working as our reference categories, our aim was to investigate the linkages of temporal work patterns with mental health using workers’ data from a large nationally representative sample of the UK population. Our hypothesis was that in comparison to workers who work standard full-time weekly work hours or weekdays, those who do not will have an elevated risk of depression.
Atypical temporal work patterns were associated with small but statistically significant elevations in depressive symptoms in a nationally representative sample of working people in the UK, which was unrestricted by occupations, employer, age or sex, and which took account of psychosocial work factors.
Our results suggest that depressive symptoms were slightly higher among weekend workers compared with non-weekend workers. Furthermore, among women, there was a suggestion of a dose–response-type pattern, while among men, psychosocial work conditions appeared to play a role in the linkage between weekend working and depressive symptoms. Men who worked weekends had higher job satisfaction than those who did not work weekends, so higher levels of depressive symptoms emerged once this was taken into account.
This study extends the limited amount of published research on weekend working, which though not gender-stratified, had shown higher emotional exhaustion and job stress among weekend workers,11,12 and in an occupation specific sample, had found higher psychological strain linked to the frequency of weekend working.13 In contrast, a national cross-sectional study of employees in France, which had disaggregated by gender, found no association between weekend working and depressive symptoms.14
However, it restricted its definition of weekend workers to those working ‘at least one Sunday or Saturday every week’, resulting in a sample of 17% women and 19% men with this work pattern. Our analyses differentiated between ‘most/all’ and ‘some’ weekend working, resulting in a less heterogeneous reference group of non-weekend workers, and a greater proportion overall of weekend workers (67% of men and 51% women) in our sample.
Our results also suggest that among women, but not men, working extra-long hours (≥55 hours/week) is linked to more depressive symptoms than working standard full-time hours, which corresponds with previous findings of stronger associations between long work hours and depressive disorders for women than men.17 23
We also found elevated symptoms of depression among men working the fewest hours (<35 hours/week), but this effect was explained by socioeconomic and physical health disadvantages among this group.
Due to the cross-sectional nature of our study we cannot confirm that men were selected into part-time work because of their health; however, it is noteworthy that previous research found that individuals with health problems were more likely to work part-time rather than full-time.32
Mechanisms and implications
Potential pressures arising from working against social and labour-force norms might explain why there were elevated depressive symptoms among those women working extra-long hours and most/all weekends.
Consistent with this suggestion are reports that it is usual in UK society for men to work longer hours33 and weekends34; indeed in our sample, only 4% of women worked extra-long hours compared with three times as many men, and about 33% more men than women worked at weekends.
Another explanation for the differences we found for men and women might relate to the gendered nature of some work: women have been found to work longer hours in male-dominated occupations35; and women working weekends tend to be concentrated in low-paid service sector jobs.36 Such jobs, when combined with frequent or complex interactions with the public or clients, have been linked to higher levels of depression.37
Our finding of more depressive symptoms among women working extra-long hours might also be explained by the potential double-burden experienced by women when their long hours in paid work are added on to their time in domestic labour. Previous studies have found that once unpaid housework and caring is accounted for, women work longer than men on average,38 and that this has been linked to poorer physical health.39 An investigation into the combined effects of domestic labour and work patterns was beyond the scope of this paper, but this could be an interesting avenue for future research.
Strengths and limitations
Although previous studies are informative about temporal work patterns for specific groups of workers or their physical health, our study is unique in focusing on a large, nationally representative, heterogeneous sample of workers of all ages (16+) with results that are generalisable to the UK. This sample enabled us to analyse data on women as well as men, reflecting the participation of both genders in the workforce and their different experiences of paid work.
Depressive symptoms were measured using the GHQ-12 scale, a validated standard measure of common mental health, but due to the cross-sectional design of our study, we cannot rule out the possibility of pre-existing symptoms. However, we consider it unlikely that depressed workers would select into long hours and weekend schedules. Indeed, longitudinal studies found that workers who experienced deterioration in their mental health adapted to it by reducing their work hours and changing their work patterns and jobs40; also, long work hours were a causal factor for depressive symptoms among civil servants.23 41