In any discussion about work and depression, or work and general health for that matter, a few things routinely crop up. Work is said to be good because it can speed recovery, it meets psychological and social needs and it is often central to our personal identity (i.e. we are what we do). Unemployment is associated with a higher risk of mortality and poorer physical and mental health. So that's the picture, or is it really as simple as that?
When you think about work what comes to mind? Is it a rich and diverse set of activities for which you are suitably rewarded both financially and emotionally? Or do you think of dull and repetitious toil that is poorly paid, where you are largely ignored and your needs are way down the list of company priorities?
As usual I'm polarizing the points in order to make a point. There are many different types of employment, good and bad days within most forms of employment, and so on. But then we should consider what happens if we work too much, or too little for that matter. And what about the nature of the workplace itself? To what extent does your ability to influence your work environment have on you – and your work?
Let’s begin by exploring too much work. How much is too much? Well various studies over time have examined this very question and there is a strong element of personal perspective that influences the outcomes. In one recent study to come out of Kyoto University the work patterns of 218 Japanese clerical workers were examined. Those who worked long hours (at least 60 per week) and perceived themselves as also having high job demands were considered more likely to suffer depression. Staff who were moved from previously lower hours to higher hours were found to be 15 times more likely to suffer depression over time.
Working 7 or 8 hours a day is about average, but the tendency to take work home is increasing to a point where it is not uncommon to find people working 11 or more hours a day. There is no real evidence to suggest that working overtime occasionally is detrimental to health. Regular overtime may be different. For example, in 2012 a study of 2000 middle aged British civil servants found a strong association between overtime and depression.
So might shorter working hours be the answer? Certainly if we perceive ourselves as being overworked it stands to reason that a reduction in work hours might be beneficial. However, a social experiment in South Korea raises an interesting point. Here the official working week was cut from 44 to 40 hours a week and Saturdays officially declared a non-working day. The motives were not entirely selfless, as high rates of industrial injuries and a flagging leisure industry were causes for concern. Unfortunately, many people now report increased stress as many bosses have increased demands for production within the reduced hours of work.
It’s not all about too much or too little. Work environments themselves are important and according to researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK, employees who have some control over the design and layout of their workspace are happier, healthier and 32 percent more productive. Now that’s something worth considering.