Work can give us a sense of purpose and direction. But can it also harm our health?


Flickr--Phil and Pam

Welcome to the future of work: a world where everything moves faster, the hours are longer and steady jobs are harder to find. Work has always been central to our lives -- in the United States, the 40-hour workweek stretches back at least a century -- but now, technology and the pressure of competing in a global economy is threatening to turn back the clock, making our toil an all-consuming affair once again.

Studies show that we're more productive than ever. American output has tripled since 1947, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But even as our careers give us a sense of purpose and belonging, research shows they're also driving us toward some pretty self-destructive behavior, raising the question: Are our jobs killing us? By committing to a lifetime of labor, much of it sedentary, are we inadvertently exposing ourselves to a kind of stress our bodies weren't designed for?

Research suggests that in general, the more we work, the worse our bodies fare. But how far does that wisdom go? Consider this a guide to help you answer the question: Is work bad for your health?

Are longer hours bad for you?
Perhaps not directly. But they do lead to activities that carry greater health risks.

In 2010, Americans each worked on average a total of 1,778 hours. That's not nearly as bad as South Korea (2,193 hours), but the United States still spends more time at work than many of its fellow developed nations, including Japan, Canada, Spain and the United Kingdom. What happens to your body when you spend more time at the office?

While there's scant credible research to suggest a longer workweek is harmful in itself, scientists have found a link between increased working hours and unhealthy behavior. In particular, working longer can lead to greater rates of cigarette use, less exercise and fewer check-ups, researchers at the University of Illinois discovered in 2010. The inverse also holds true: working fewer hours is linked to healthier behavior. When France cut the legal cap on weekly working hours from 39 to 35 in 1998, workers were 4.3 percent less likely to smoke cigarettes. They were also less likely to abuse alcohol. And for every hour cut from the workweek, the study's participants were 2.2 percent more likely to engage in exercise.

Even if the causal relationship between long workweeks and poor health isn't directly clear, what is clear is that the more time you spend at work, the less you have to take care of yourself. And that's just common sense.

What about working odd hours?
Undoubtedly bad for you. The question is, why?

Some 15 million Americans work evening or overnight shifts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These night-owls are all at greater risk for Type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease, among other afflictions. What do these individuals have in common? Could it be that night workers are universally unhealthy to begin with? Or that healthcare for night workers is somehow different than for their daytime colleagues?

Actually, the link between poor health and hard work is unambiguous here. There is a connection, and it has to do with our natural sleep cycles. Scientists at Harvard Medical School tested this theory in 2009 when they deliberately interfered with their test subjects' circadian rhythms. After being woken progressively later and later in the day for eight days in a row, the subjects' blood samples showed a remarkable decline in leptin, one of the body's hormones responsible for controlling appetite. Stress-related hormones like cortisol rose dramatically, and so too did subjects' blood pressure. Indicators for diabetes, such as blood glucose and insulin, were also at dangerous levels.

Throw it all together, and what you have is a potent cocktail of abnormalities primed for combustion.

I work in an office. Should be pretty safe, right?
Depends. Are you sitting down?

In some ways, office drones have it easy -- they don't face the acute threats that challenge soldiers, firefighters or other people who have an occupational relationship with mortal danger. But as it turns out, desk jockeys face a far more insidious hazard: the swiveling, cushioned time bomb they plant their bottoms on every day.

In a widely publicized study last year that had test subjects walking around in motion-sensitive underwear and eating meals controlled down to the last calorie, Mayo Clinic researchers discovered that inactivity simply due to sitting led to wild swings in metabolism. Other research has shown that those who sit for at least 11 hours a day were forty percent more likely to die within three years -- no matter how much exercise they get.* Even if you're only seated for eight hours a day, your risk of death is still 15 percent greater than someone who sits for half that time.

It's no surprise then, that the standing desk industry is experiencing a wave of interest at the moment. The news is also unequivocally good for workers who spend much of their time on their feet. Cube dwellers, on the other hand? Not so lucky.

Is unemployment bad for your health?
Not all the research is in agreement. But the vast majority of it is.

The modern American workplace may be turning us into vegetables, but what about those not fortunate enough to be employed in the first place? Nearly 13 million people are out of work in America, largely thanks to the recession. Of those, 5.3 million make up the long-term unemployed -- those that haven't worked for 27 weeks or longer.

On these folks, the research is somewhat mixed. Some studies appear to show no evidence of a decline in health as a result of unemployment, and others even report modest gains in the form of reduced drinking and smoking. In short bursts, unemployment has also been linked to greater physical activity.

Still, studies like these are the exception, not the rule, which mostly upholds the idea that unemployment of any kind is ultimately very bad for you, if not worse than being employed and falling ill because of it. In one meta-analysis covering some 20 million individuals, people who became unemployed saw their risk for mortality jump by 63 percent. The longer a person is unemployed, the greater their risk for depression. European research has also linked unemployment to obesity and heart disease.

Is work killing us?
Work can be lethal, yes. But the unemployed appear to have it even worse.

Not all work is hazardous to your health. Doing your best to maintain reasonable hours and limiting the amount of time you spend sitting seem like decent safeguards. On the bright side, these are variables we enjoy at least some control over. Being unemployed, however, is rarely a path taken willingly. In terms of both number and magnitude, unemployment brings along far greater health risks.

* An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that test subjects had a 4-in-10 chance of dying within three years if they spent more than 11 hours a day seated. We regret the error.

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