A STUDY published recently in The Lancet showing people who work long hours are at increased risk of stroke has had a lot of attention in recent weeks.
Working 55 hours a week or more was associated with a 33% increase in stroke risk, compared with working 35‒40 hours, according to the large meta-analysis of published and unpublished data covering more than half a million people across Europe, the US and Australia.
The authors said their findings suggested doctors should pay more attention to management of vascular risk factors in people who work long hours.
Well, yes, perhaps they should, but that doesn’t seem like the only conclusion you could draw from this research.
For me, and most people I know, the standard response to a polite “How are you?” these days is “Busy. Crazy busy.”
It may sound like a complaint but , as others have pointed out, it’s also kind of a boast: “Look at me. See how important I am. I’m just constantly in demand.”
If we added up all the work-related things we do in a week, many of us would probably top the 55-hour mark.
There can be all kinds of reasons for that, ranging from financial necessity to pressure from employers, or perhaps a particular determination to avoid some of the other issues in our lives.
Mind you, the perception that we are all working far harder than we used to may not be entirely accurate.
Figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development show average full-time working hours in Australia have actually gone down slightly since 2001, though at 42.6 hours per week they are still higher than in most other developed countries.
And even that average figure might pose a health risk, according to The Lancet study, which found a 10% increase in stroke risk for those who worked 41‒48 hours per week, although this wasn’t considered to be statistically significant.
While some of us are possibly working our way into an early grave, hundreds of thousands of Australians are unable to find any work at all.
The official unemployment rate in this country is just above 6% and an estimated 175 000 Australians have been unemployed for more than a year.
We have what is politely described as a “restructuring” economy, one in which traditional industries and jobs evaporate on a daily basis.
But maybe it’s time we restructured the way we think about work — how it’s distributed and how the rewards it brings are shared.
A partner in a law firm once told me his outfit had no female partners because women wouldn’t work the expected 60‒70 hours a week once they had children.
I’m sure the partners were handsomely remunerated for their pains, but I think you’d have to question why we’d demand that kind of commitment from anyone, even lawyers.
Of course, you can’t just take the excess hours worked by a partner in a law firm and hand them over to somebody who’s lost their job in the car industry, but surely we could be a bit more flexible in sharing the work around.
People who choose to work part-time are often seen as not being serious about their jobs and are passed over for promotion and other opportunities.
How different might things be if this became a standard arrangement for fathers and mothers while their children were young? Or for people approaching retirement?
It certainly seems like a better option than having hundreds of thousands of people unemployed and the rest of us on beta-blockers.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.