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People who work more than 39 hours a week put their health at risk, ANU study finds

People who work more than 39 hours a week put their health at risk, ANU study findsThe 60 hours a week real estate agent Liam Wilson spends on the job should put his health well into the danger zone, according to a new ANU study.

Based on a survey of 8000 Australians, the research found the average healthy work limit for Australians was 39 hours a week, as opposed to the 48-hour-week international limit set in 1930.

But Mr Wilson feels physically and mentally well, and says he can cope with the stress of long working hours thanks to his two-hour daily exercise and healthy diet. Although he acknowledged many people could not achieve his lifestyle.

"For me, it's definitely possible to work long hours and be healthy. But in a way, I'm selfish," he said.

"But I work and go home and do things for myself because I have no family or even partner to worry about, so everyone is different."

Lead researcher of the study, Dr Huong Dinh from the ANU Research School of Population Health, called for a reduction in the the international labour standards set in 1930, from 48 hours to 38 hours a week.

But interestingly, Dr Dinh suggested women could generally work no more than 34 hours a week without risking their health, once commitments were considered, while men could deal with working up to 45.5 hours.

She said the data, which was taken from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, revealed current work hours could be systemically disadvantaging women's health.

"The workforce has changed dramatically since the standards were set, when the workforce was mainly male," she said.

"Given the extra demands placed on women, it's impossible for women to work long hours often expected by employers unless they compromise their health. That's because normally women spend more time on childcare and doing unpaid housework."

The research showed about 40 per cent of working Australians reported struggling with managing a work/life balance.

Clinical psychologist at the University of Canberra Dr Vivienne Lewis cautioned against a one size fits all approach to work hours.

While agreeing that women generally do more domestic and caretaking duties, she said there was the potential to "devalue" the work of many men who take on these roles by making gender-specific rules.

"It's not as simple as saying no one should work more than 39 hours a week," Dr Lewis said.

"There is research that also suggests that those who find their work meaningful and it gives them pride and a sense of meaning can actually benefit from doing more hours. It's part of their identity and they get a lot of pleasure from doing work. For some people, work isn't a chore, it is a pleasurable choice."

On the other hand, she said a 39-hour week could easily have a negative impact on the mental and physical health of those exhausted from the added stress of unpaid work, or who dislike, resent or are overwhelmed by their jobs.

She said employers had an important role in ensuring staff weren't overworked by allowing them to have mental health days off, which in the long run would improve staff productivity.

"It's about recognising signs of being overworked such as stress, tiredness, stating that they're overwhelmed and asking 'are you ok?'," she said.

"Also, understanding the demands on people with families and children, or looking after the sick or the aged. Really considering people's lives outside of work and that people need time to attend to all of their responsibilities."

Mental illness is estimated to cost the Australian economy $20 billion annually in lost productivity and labour participation, and is a leading reason for absenteeism.

The UNSW Workplace Mental Health Research Group is working to better understand the complex link between individuals, their resilience skills and specific jobs.
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  • Alan
  • 01-09-2017, 00:55
  • : 00:55
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