Long work hours and health: A surprising new finding

New research from CSU faculty sheds light on the relationship between long working hours and our health.

We all know the story: working long hours is bad for our health. Numerous blogs and news articles in recent years have bemoaned both the long hours people work and the detrimental effects those lengthy work days have on our health. But as two Colorado State University professors proved in a recent award-winning paper, there’s another side to that narrative.

An Old Story

There is a widespread belief in both academic and public writing that working long hours is bad for us. But is it true? Professor Dan Ganster from the College of Business’s Department of Management and Associate Professor Gwenith G. Fisher from the College of Natural Science’s Department of Psychology, along with Christopher Rosen from the University of Arkansas, decided to investigate.

In their paper “Long Working Hours and Well-being: What We Know, What We Do Not Know, and What We Need to Know,” published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, the group conducted a critical review of the academic and public literature on long work hours and their effects on employee well-being. Their review didn’t find a direct causal effect of work hours on physical and mental health.

In other words, working long hours doesn’t negatively impact our health.

This surprising finding earned the research team a 2018 Editor Commendation, which the journal gives to select papers of note each year. Of the 600 papers submitted to the journal in 2018, only 12 received this recognition.

A New Take

In their review of the existing research, Ganster, Fisher, and Rosen found that the conventional wisdom on this topic is wrong—the effects of long hours are more nuanced than previously thought. Those effects can also vary quite a lot depending on a number of factors, including an employee’s age, gender, and working conditions.

Considered by themselves, though, long working hours have a minimal impact on mental and physical health.

“Despite much popular and scientific writing about how we are all killing ourselves with long work hours, the hard evidence is that their effects are very small.  Other things like work stress take a much bigger toll,” Ganster said. “So, it’s not how long you work that matters, it’s what kind of working conditions you face.”

Paths for Future Research

Ganster, Fisher, and Rosen believe that the connection between working hours and health merits further study, given the topic’s popularity in both academic research and popular media. In their paper, they identified future research opportunities, such as examining cultural expectations around work hours and assessing length of exposure to long work hours. They also recommended applying more nuanced frameworks to future studies that might better explain the relationship between health and long working hours.

“Studies that tackle these issues will provide an avenue for research in the organizational sciences to better inform public policy and professional practice going forward,” the paper concludes.

So although it may be disappointing to learn that your long work days aren’t necessarily bad for you, it’s encouraging to know that future research guided by these findings can shed more light on the complicated relationship between our work and our health.