For many of us, our jobs are an important part of our identity. We live in a society that tells us that doing more work is somehow morally better than doing less work. This is something that many people take for granted without really thinking about it. But new research compiled from statistics provided by the World Health Organisation suggests that this attitude might be killing us, or at least measurably reducing our life expectancy — by almost a decade, in fact.
What the Research Says
Antibodies.com has released a new study, ‘Lifestyle vs Lifespan’, which analysed statistics from the WHO and found trends between the average working week and average life expectancy. They found that a working week of more than 48 hours was associated with a 9-year decrease in life expectancy.
In the UK, the maximum working week is 48 hours, averaged out over 17 weeks. There are some obvious exceptions to this rule, such as businesses that require 24-hour staffing. Similarly, security services, armed forces, and emergency services are exempt. Some of the less obvious exceptions include domestic servants and those that work at sea.
This research suggests that people who work in roles that might require more than 48 hours of work each week might want to factor in the long-term consequences of long working weeks when deciding whether to pursue a long-term career.
If you are working less than 48 hours each week, don’t celebrate just yet. The research from Antibodies.com indicated that a 40-hour working week could reduce life expectancy by up to two years. This is not as dramatic a decrease as seen in those who work 48 hours or more, but it is still a relevant statistic for many of us.
The Lowest Life Expectancy
The lowest life expectancy was recorded in Lesotho, a tiny enclaved country in South Africa. Interestingly, while their life expectancy only differed from the second-lowest, Central African Republic, by 0.1 years, Lesotho has a considerably shorter working week. CAR has a 52-hour working week and pays for it with a life expectancy of just 53. Lesotho, meanwhile, has only a 45-hour workweek, a relatively long working week but less than 52.
Of course, life expectancy is determined by a number of factors, of which lifestyle is hugely important. Our lifestyles are often tied to our jobs in several ways. In fact, it’s the jobs we do that determine the lifestyle that’s available to us. Part of that is to do with the money we earn and part of that is to do with the hours we work.
Of the 13 countries that were deemed to have a low life expectancy, 38 per cent of them – five in total — had working weeks that exceeded 45 hours. By contrast, only one country had an average working week of over 45 hours and a long lifespan. Switzerland boasts an average lifespan of 82 years with an average working week of 50 hours. This puts Switzerland behind only Japan when it comes to the average lifespan.
Switzerland is a very interesting case because they not only have a relatively long working week for such a long life expectancy, but they also have a high level of alcohol consumption. The difference in life expectancy between Switzerland and comparable countries in Europe may well be down to the unusually clean Swiss air. The Swiss record some of the lowest levels of pollution every year.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is a very useful source of data for global trends. They put the average working week for OECD members at 33 hours, with an average life expectancy of 80.6. Among the countries who ranked at the very bottom for life expectancy, they averaged an additional nine hours over the length of an average working week.
As Stewart Newlove, the Managing Director at Antibodies.com, has made clear, there are numerous factors that affect life expectancy. For example, among the countries with the lowest life expectancy, vaccination rates for children are lower, as are the rates of infant mortality, which can skew the average.
But even these correlations aren’t perfect. The Kingdom of Lesotho has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world, but a childhood vaccination rate of 93 per cent, one of the highest in the world. Its short life expectancy is due to the fact that diseases like AIDS cannot be vaccinated against and diseases like tuberculosis occur at a higher rate than average. These diseases are difficult to fight without the resources of a much bigger state.
In the UK, there has been a concerted effort in recent years to highlight the long-term health impact of drinking alcohol and consuming large amounts of meat. While these are clearly important public health measures, Australia bucks the trend in a big way. Australia has the fourth-highest life expectancy in the world despite relatively low vaccination rates, an average of 111.5kg of meat being consumed per person each year — a figure that stands at triple the global average — and a high alcohol prevalence at 84 per cent.
Japan recorded the highest average lifespan at 84.2 years. This is largely due to the famously healthy Japanese diet, low average BMI, and very low rates of obesity. However, Japan also has one of the highest rates of daily cigarette consumption in the world. The average Japanese working week is 40 hours and alcohol prevalence is relatively low.
There has long been an assumption that an overly long working week will have negative impacts on long-term health. This study quantifies the very real harm of chronic overworking. People who are considering their long-term career options might want to factor this information into their decision-making process. While the average working week is only one factor in determining lifespan, it is intimately linked with a number of other key factors, such as lifestyle and emotional well-being.