Employees who work more than 55 hours a week more likely to consume 'risky' levels of alcohol

New study prompts calls for employers to stick to working week limits

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The Independent Online

People who work longer are more likely to seek solace in alcohol, new research finds, sparking calls for employers to use European limits on the length of the working week.

It has long been accepted that long days can lead to exhaustion, mental health problems and even relationship breakdown, but the new study has shown for the first time that employees who put in extra are at higher risk of turning to drink, compared to those who leave on time. Employees who work more than 55 hours a week are 13 per cent more likely to consume “risky” levels of alcohol.

Scientists say the link “cannot be ignored”. The study of 330,000 people provides the first systematic analysis of the relationship between working hours and alcohol use. It provides support for the European Union Working Time Directive, which calls on EU member states to guarantee that working hours must not exceed 48 hours per week on average, including overtime. Britain effectively opts out because workers can volunteer to work more hours.

Scientists already know there is a significant increase in physiological ill-effects associated with increasing working hours from 8 to 12 hours a day. However the authors of the new study, carried out across 14 countries and published in the BMJ journal, say that effectively regulating working hours should be considered as a crucial public health intervention.

Dangerous alcohol consumption, which can lead to increased risk of liver disease, cancer, stroke, coronary disease and mental disorders, is considered as more than 21 units of alcohol per week for men and more than 14 units per week for women.

Despite the stereotype of “white collar” workers unwinding with a glass of wine after a hard day, the study found that middle-class drinkers tended to be over-represented in most studies at the expense of manual and shift workers. 

In fact, the BMJ study showed the relationship between alcohol consumption and longer working hours isn’t affected by age, gender or socioeconomic status. Instead it found that shift patterns and the spread of working hours are more important factors in tracking risky alcohol use.

Regardless of economic status, the research team said the analysis “supports the longstanding suspicion that among workers subjected to long working hours, alcohol can seem like a fast acting and effective way to dull work-related aches and pains and smooth the transition between work life and home life”.

According to lead author Cassandra Okechukwu, an assistant professor at Harvard School of Public Health, this has major implications for working time rules.

She said: “Given mounting pressure to exclude an increasing proportion of workers from current standards that limit working hours in Europe and other developed countries, long working hours is an exposure that we cannot afford to ignore.”