Men and women who work on weekends may be more likely to develop depression, a UK study suggests.
Although a growing number of people worldwide are working longer hours as more businesses operate 24/7, it's not clear how evaporating "off time" is impacting workers' mental health, researchers note in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
Data is particularly sparse about differences between women and men in the connection between work schedules and depression risk, the study team notes.
For the current study, researchers examined nationally representative survey data from 11,215 men and 12,188 women working in the UK between 2010 and 2012.
Almost half of the women worked less than 35 hours a week, while the majority of men worked longer hours. Only half of the women worked at least some weekends, compared with two-thirds of the men.
Compared to those working a "standard" 35- to 40-hour work week, men working less had more symptoms of depression. Women, however, had a greater risk of depression only when they worked at least 55 hours a week.
Women working most weekends had more depression symptoms than women who only worked weekdays. Men had more depression symptoms with weekend work when they also disliked their working conditions.
"The results of our study show gender differences in the links between long and irregular hours and depressive symptoms," said study leader Gillian Weston, a public health researcher at University College London.
"There are many social, economic and health benefits to be gained from working in good jobs, so we don't want women to be excluded from the workforce," Weston said by email. "Instead, employers and family members should consider how they can be more supportive of those who work long or irregular hours."
The study wasn't designed to prove whether the timing of shifts or number of hours worked in per week might directly impact the risk of depression. Researchers also relied on workers to report their own symptoms of depression.
Even so, the results suggest employers should realise that long hours and weekend shifts may compromise workers' mental health, Weston said.
"We need to move from a culture of unrealistic demands and low rewards to one in which workers are supported and valued, feel they have control, feel they have purpose, and are allowed sufficient time for recovery and leisure," Weston added. "This would benefit workers of both sexes and result in a happier and healthier workforce too - which of course would also benefit the employer."
Long hours may take a toll on mental health for many reasons, including the potential to take away time from social activities, personal lives and rest, said Sabir Giga, a researcher at Lancaster University in the UK who wasn't involved in the study.
Women might feel this burden more acutely because they have more responsibility and more work to do at home, in addition to the time they put in for any job outside the home, Giga said by email.
Workers may not be able to control their hours or their job schedules as much as they would like, but people still may be able to take steps to reduce their risk of depression, Giga said.
"This could be through taking regular breaks whilst working, prioritizing your work, learning to say 'no' and not over-committing yourself, working from home or flexibly when possible, communicating regularly and openly with family members, partners and colleagues, and meaningfully switching off and making the most of your time when away from work," Giga advised.