Spotlight on work-hours, gender and health inequalities

Long work hours erode health, but whose health is being more adversely affected: men’s or women’s?

Families Australia, in association with the Commonwealth Department of Social Services, recently convened a forum in Canberra to explore this question as part of Families Australia’s Building Stronger Australian Families initiative [1].

The forum was led by Professor Lyndall Strazdins from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University College of Medicine, Biology and the Environment.

She discussed recent research in which she and her colleagues explored how work-hours were protective of health, especially when seen through the lens of gender. Their paper—Hour-glass ceilings: Work-hour thresholds, gendered health inequities [2]—has attracted considerable media attention: the ABC AM radio program reported, for example, that ‘people who work more than 39 hours a week are putting their health at risk’ [3].

The study is highly significant for policy development, particularly for its findings about the likely adverse health consequences of long working hours for many women and care-givers. To quote:

How many hours men and women work determines their income and labour market success. We find that it also determines their health, in gender distinctive ways…there are identifiable tipping points beyond which working longer compromises mental health…for the average Australian adult aged 24-64, these hour-health tipping points are 10 h[ours] lower than current regulatory standards, and lower again for women and employees with care and domestic responsibilities. Within an affluent, developed economy such as Australia, there is a workhour-health trade-off that is socially patterned. It is likely to be systematically disadvantaging women and caregivers, generating labour market-based health inequalities. [4] [italics added]

Please view Professor Strazdins’ presentation here.

Families Australia thanks Professor Strazdins, as well as forum panellists Dr Ros Baxter and Dr Tim Reddel from the Department of Social Services, for their participation in this Building Stronger Australian Families policy forum. In coming months, Families Australia plans to continue its investigation of work and family issues.

Dr Brian Babington

18 April 2017

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[1] Families Australia’s Building Stronger Australian Families forums bring together key people from government, NGO and research sectors to consider how best to advance the wellbeing of Australian families now and in the future. More information is available at <http://familiesaustralia.org.au/policies-submissions/current-policy-areas/building-stronger-australian-families/>.

[2] Dinh H, Strazdins L, Welsh J. Hour-glass ceilings: Work-hour thresholds, gendered health inequities. Social Science & Medicine 176 (2017) 42-51.

[3] ABC AM Program, 2 February 2017, ‘Working more than 39 hours a week can affect your mental health, new research shows’, retrieved from <http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2016/s4612862.htm>.

[4] Dinh H, Strazdins L, Welsh J. Hour-glass ceilings: Work-hour thresholds, gendered health inequities. Social Science & Medicine 176 (2017) 49.