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Overworking, non-flexible working hours and depression

It is common knowledge and there is research in abundance on how mental disorders such as depression and anxiety can lead to substantial impairments at work, but there is not as much research about the inverse i.e. what the impact of long working hours is on people’s risk of developing a mental disorder.

In a study published in the Public Library of Science (“Overtime Work as a Predictor of Major Depressive Episode: A 5-Year Follow-Up of the Whitehall II Study”, 2012), researchers at University College London concluded that there was a significant correlation between overtime working hours and the development of major depressive episodes. In the study, they looked at the work habits of 2,123 middle-aged British civil servants. They adjusted the findings to compensate for various confounders such as socio-demographics, lifestyle and work-specific factors. The results still indicated that the risk of developing a major depressive episode was twice as high if a person worked for 11 hours or more per day.

Furthermore, it appears that flexible working hours can at least have some form of positive impact on the health and well-being of employees. Researchers at the University of Minnesota found in a study on 659 employees at the Best Buy head quarters, that more flexible working hours improved the staff’s sleep quality, energy levels and self-reported health (“Changing Work, Changing Health: Can Real Work-Time Flexibility Promote Health Behaviours and Well-Being?” – Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, 2012). Employees who focused on measurable results instead of when and where work is completed also managed to reduce their emotional exhaustion, psychological distress, and work-family conflict. Employees with more flexible time and freedom to choose their location to work from also enable them to take better care of themselves.

It therefore appears that a combination of long working hours and lack of time flexibility and choice of work location can create a dangerous combination which can affect mental and physical health. The traditional model of working 9am to 5pm with significant overtime therefore appears to be far from ideal. Employers should keep these findings in mind and try to find workable solutions to allow employees more flexibility in where they work, which hours they spend working and also the amount of overtime they do. Adjusting on the aforementioned factors will be beneficial to both the employees and the organisation and will ensure sustainable good health and well-being in employees.