A new study has found that those who work long hours are more likely to drink heavily, particularly those working over 48 hours a week. In the U.S. in 2013, 6.8 percent of people 18 and over reported drinking heavily, with around 7 percent being classed as having an alcohol use disorder, and the new study suggests that long working hours could be a factor in the development of addiction for these people. The association seems to be closely linked to stress, and it suggests that those working long hours should take care to use healthy methods of stress management and cut back their hours or risk developing an addiction. The study was conducted by researchers from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, and used data from 61 studies, with a total of over 330,000 workers from 14 countries, including the U.S., U.K., Australia, Sweden, Taiwan and Germany. The aim was to determine the relationship between long working hours and heavy drinking, defining heavy drinking as anything over 14 units (i.e., 14 standard drinks) per week for women and 21 units per week for men, and defining long working hours as anything over 40 hours per week (although the focus was on those working 48 hours or more per week, because of the recommendations of the European Working Time Directive). The definition of “heavy drinking” used is a little more lax than in the U.S., where more than eight standard drinks per week for women and 14 for men is considered heavy drinking. However, the study’s definition is in agreement with recommendations in countries like the U.K.
Working Long Hours Boosts Odds of Heavy Drinking
Overall, those who worked more hours were 11 percent more likely to drink heavily than those who worked the standard 35 to 40 hours per week. In order to find out more about the association, the researchers found a group of participants who were drinking within normal levels at the beginning of the study period but were working long days, and tracked their progression over six years. The researchers found that after six years, those working long hours were 12 percent more likely to have started drinking heavily than those working normal hours. The odds of developing risky drinking were also a little higher when those who worked over 48 hours per week were considered, with 13 percent of those working 49 to 54 hours per week starting to drink heavily by the end of the study, compared to those working 35 to 40 hours per week, of whom only 6.2 percent went on to heavy drinking. Although men tend to drink heavily more often than women, the results were the same regardless of gender. Geographic location made no difference in the findings. Study author Marianna Virtanen, although confident in the strength of the association, pointed out that the finding does have limitations. “This is an observational study, so we cannot completely make causal assumptions of the relationship between long working hours and alcohol use,” she said. In other words, there is a strong association between long working hours and heavy drinking, but it’s not possible to definitively say that working long hours causes the drinking from these data alone. Alcohol isn’t the only negative health effect associated with working long hours, though, with other work from Virtanen showing that those who worked 10 hours a day were 60 percent more likely to develop heart problems and 40 percent more likely to develop coronary heart disease. Working long hours also decreases cognitive reasoning ability, according to yet another study from Virtanen and her team. Commenting on the wide range of consequences of overworking, Virtanen said, “We think stress might be one of them; poor recovery, poor sleep and symptoms of distress can all contribute to heart diseases. Then there are lifestyle factors such as sedentary work and leisure time, unhealthy diet, alcohol use and smoking. People who work long hours may in general have a lifestyle that involves poor self-care; for example, they may be reluctant (or don’t have time) to see a doctor.”
Long Working Hours, Stress and Drinking
Although Virtanen points out that the precise mechanisms by which long working hours increase the risk of heavy drinking and other conditions haven’t been studied, it seems very likely that stress is central. With a known association between stress and alcohol use, as well as other drug use, the basic message is clear: working long hours boosts your stress and makes you more prone to turn to substances as a coping mechanism. This once again underlines the importance of learning healthier methods of coping with stress. Not everybody is interested in trying something like mindfulness meditation or yoga, but even activities like exercising (even if it’s just going for a walk) or simply closing your eyes and listening to relaxing music can be effective ways to reduce stress. Ideally, you should try to keep your working hours to normal levels, but if that isn’t possible, learning effective methods of stress reduction is essential for reducing your risk of turning to drugs or alcohol.