Working long hours? You might be putting yourself at a higher risk of depression

For most of us, the 38-hour work week is as much of a myth as the magical faraway tree.

And if you feel like you spend most of your life at work, it’s because you probably do. Nearly a quarter of Australians work more than 50 hours per week. Half of us would like to work less.

We are living in the age of the hustle, where burnout is a recognised condition and side-gigs the norm.

But it might be doing disastrous things to our mental health – especially if you’re a woman. Overworking ourselves can pose significant dangers to women’s mental health, according to a major study, which showed females who work 55-hour weeks are more likely to suffer from depression than males who work the same hours and females who work less hours.

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The research, conducted by University College London and Queen Mary University of London, published in the BMJ’s Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, involved 20,000 adults, taking into account age, income, health and job characteristics.

The findings showed that those women who worked extra-long hours had 7.3% more depressive symptoms than those who worked less than 40 hours.

Interestingly, men who worked the same hours did not show signs of depression, suggesting women’s mental health could be more affected than men by longer working hours, which researchers reasoned could be due to a disproportionate share of domestic chores.

“This is an observational study, so although we cannot establish the exact causes, we do know many women face the additional burden of doing a larger share of domestic labour than men, leading to extensive total work hours, added time pressures and overwhelming responsibilities,” explained Gill Weston of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, PhD candidate and lead author of the study.

While Weston pointed out that women in general were more likely to be depressed than men, she said gender was not the only thing that affected our mental health. In addition, she noted: “We also found that workers with the most depressive symptoms were older, on lower incomes, smokers, in physically demanding jobs, and who were dissatisfied at work.”

So why do we continue to work such long hours? One explanation is that many of us have no choice and are trapped in professions which require excessive hours. A recent paper found overworkers, men and women, are also compensated for these unwelcome hours with higher pay, better job security and more interesting work.

Weston said she hoped the findings would encourage employers and policy-makers to rethink how they could reduce the burdens and increase support for women working longer or irregular hours, without restricting their ability to work when they wanted to.

She added: “More sympathetic working practices could bring benefits both for workers and for employers – of both sexes”.

If you or someone you know is struggling with your mental health or needs help, call Lifeline on 131 114, Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. In an emergency, call 000. For a correct treatment plan, book an appointment with your GP.