It's common knowledge that overworking yourself isn't very good for your mental health (or your physical health, for that matter). But what's considered the ideal number of work hours per week, exactly? That number, it turns out, isn't the same for everyone; in fact, it depends on one major factor: How much you need to balance between home and work duties. Unsurprisingly, people often work much longer than they should, exceeding hours well past the number at which you can still be productive — and women suffer disproportionately when it happens, according to a new study published in Social Science & Medicine.
While working can give us a sense of purpose and help us craft the future we envision for ourselves, there is such a thing as being a workaholic. As part of the study, researchers in Australia surveyed nearly 8,000 workers between ages 24 and 65 on the length of their work week and measured the state of their mental health, asking questions related to happiness, anxiety, and depression, among other topics. They also controlled for factors like race and ethnicity, household income, and health habits like smoking.
Results shows that the average worker is at the office about 47 hours a week, but a person's mental health begins to take a nosedive after working for 39 hours in any given week. The absolute maximum that anybody should work is 48 hours, so it looks like workers are hovering right below that line. Interestingly, at the same time, people who worked very little also had worse mental health — same as people who worked way too much.
So what's a happy medium? Well, it depends. The researchers suggest that men should work no more than 43.5 hours a week, while women should stick to 38 hours of weekly work.
The first question that emerges from these guidelines, however, is of course, why the difference? Unfortunately, gender disparities suggest that the consequences of overworking hits women even harder than men — and for a troubling reason. It's not that men are any stronger than women, or due to any other common but grossly inaccurate stereotype; quite the contrary, in fact. It's this: Women suffer from overworking more because women are often the ones who are expected to take care of at-home responsibilities like cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the kids.
This, too, is supported by research: The 2014 American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and a 2015 survey from the Working Mother Research Institute both found that women still handle more chores and childcare responsibilities even when they work full time; what's more, a 2016 study presented at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting found that the majority of U.S. adults think women should handle the bulk of the household responsibilities even when they work full time or earn more money than their partners.
You can see how this might become a problem, right? And indeed, it does: According to the current study, people who have additional to-dos back at the house start seeing their mental health decline if their work week exceeds 34.5 hours (way less than for people who can easily just call it a day once they're home). These folks are disproportionately women — and surprise! Women are therefore disproportionately suffering as a result, making this whole thing yet another example of gender inequality. I'm willing to bet that this difference in ideal work hours, dubbed the "hour-glass ceiling" by the researchers, also contributes to other sexist phenomena like the gender pay gap and workplace discrimination.
Although it sounds easy enough, for some reason, our society still hasn't mastered the art of taking turns when it comes to things like chores and childcare. As a result, men are able to focus on their work more at the expense of women's careers and, perhaps even more importantly, their health. If society wants to achieve true workplace efficiency and gender equality, we have to embrace a solution that's simple in theory but requires unraveling centuries' worth of gender norms. At the end of the day, who doesn't want to work less while also being more productive? I thought so.