Economic researchers in Japan (where there is a culture of long hours and karoshi – death by overwork) analysed the employment habits and cognitive test results of 3,000 men and 3,500 women above the age of 40 in Australia, including retired and unemployed people.
They found that a part-time job is the best balance between keeping the brain stimulated and becoming completely exhausted through stress.
People who worked about 25 hours a week tended to get the best scores. Those who didn’t work at all scored about 20% lower on the series of tests (reading, numbers and patterns).
Working 40 hours a week was linked to a slightly smaller cognitive deficit but working 55 hours or more was worse than being retired or unemployed.
Working over 50-55 hours is known to cause heart problems in men in particular and an increase in error rates and accidents. The Whitehall study of 10,000 civil servants also found that people who worked working 55 hours a week did worse on cognitive tests than those who kept to 40 hours. Despite this body of knowledge the UK government still opted out of the European Working Time Directive.
Many countries have extended or scrapped the state retirement age and many people face the prospect of working into their 70s. Finnish experts have already warned that people may not be physically or mentally capable of sustaining the effort required to continue in their jobs.
Some companies , like BMW, have invested in modifying the workplace to cater for older employees but they are probably an exception.
Marianna Virtanen, a Finnish Occupational Health expert (they are hot on OH in Finland) who led the Whitehall studies in the mid-80s said that the new research seemed to show tat “Middle-aged and older people should limit their working hours to keep their cognitive capacity fit“.
She did wonder whether a long working week caused a drop in cognitive ability or whether a drop in cognitive ability led to people working longer hours to compensate. She conceded however that “In certain jobs where there is a lot of intense focus and concentration is needed, working long hours may be more exhausting to cognition“.
In the search for a better work-life balance some people are giving up their traditional jobs and building up a portfolio of part-time jobs instead.
Portfolio working was a term coined by Charles Handy back in the 1980s which has now been replaced by the “gig economy“.
With the developments in new technology and easier access to free wi-fi in coffee bars (but not to our shame in most hotels) people who were once described as Nomads were the exception. Freelance consultants or trainers in the main.
But attitudes have changed and young people, stay-at-home Mums, and those approaching retirement or who have retired i.e. not middle-aged people with a mortgage to worry about, a make up an increasing proportion of the workforce – already a third in the USA – opting to work in this way.
Uber, the taxi service, says many of its drivers have other jobs or are students (I remember when firefighters used to work as taxi-drivers among other things in their time off). Although working from home has become more popular, not everyone thinks this way including, perhaps surprisingly, Generation Y employees.
The desire for flexibility, and I would say control over the work they do, is what seems to be driving this trend. Together with the unavailability of traditional jobs for those in this segment of the economy.
The research behind this story was carried out by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills
- Being happily married helps women resist work-place stress whilst men dissatisfied with their jobs are more likely to flirt.
- If you’re a working mum stop worrying about it having negative effects on your kids but try not to work more than 30 hours a week.
- If you’re a stay-at-home dad then you’re probably more satisfied with your life than dads who go out to work but, like many women, miss adult conversation.
- If you are an independent women rejecting help may make people believe you are competent but cold, and vice versa. Not so for men.
- In a mixed group women cooperate more than men but men are more cooperative than women when working in a single sex group.
But men and women do have one thing in common: taking work home – whether mentally or physically – can depress you and make you feel tired.
A study at UCLA, published in 2008 in Health Psychology, showed that happily married working women rebounded quicker from daily stress than women in less happy relationships.
Men showed lower stress levels as the day progressed – as measured by levels of cortisol in their saliva – whether happily married or not. So while marriage is often seen as good for men’s health it may come at a price for women in unhappy relationships.
But there is good news for working mums. Research at the University of Bath, published this year, shows that working mothers are significantly less likely to suffer from depression whether part-time or full-time and regardless of salary level: single mums 15% less likely and mums in a partnership 6% less likely.
The researchers said there seems to be little evidence to link stress at work to depression. Women going back to work showed a 26% drop in mental health problems compared to an increase of 25% for women giving up work. And the same results have been found in a 10-year study in America where working mums also report fewer symptoms of depression than mums who don’t work. Working part-time was the healthiest option of all.
We have known for decades that unemployment was bad for men and now the same applies to women. Work gives you a sense of identity and boosts your self-esteem which impacts on your well-being.
And there’s no evidence that babies suffer when their mums work. Past research found that returning to work early resulted in children who are slower learners and UNICEF recommended in 2008 that women stay at home for the first 12 months rather than put their children at risk.
But the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Study of Early Child Care followed 1,000 children over 7 years tracking their families and their development. The research published by the Society for Research in Child Development in 2010 showed that overall the net impact was neutral: the advantages of more income and better child care offset any downsides of the mums returning to work. Again part-time working of up to 30 hours a week offered better outcomes than full-time working.
But women don’t have it all their own way at work. When it comes to “benevolent sexism” a study reported in the European Journal of Social Psychology (2012) showed that women couldn’t win. If they accept someone’s offer of help, for example opening a door for them or helping with a computer problem, they are seen as warmer but less competent; if they reject help they are seen as competent but cold.
And the same researchers found that accepting help meant that women were judged less suitable for managerial jobs while rejecting help led to their being judged less suitable for care jobs that relied on emotional skills.
For men the results were different. Rejecting offers of help led to them being judged as competent but not less warm. And it seems men are judged both competent and warmer when they offer help which is accepted.
It seem that independent women are seen as competent but cold mainly by people who believe in benevolent sexism and who adopt paternalistic attitudes.
A review by Balliet of 50 years of research discovered that men are actually more cooperative than women. And they are more likely to help strangers and be cooperative in large groups, whereas women are seen as more supportive and agreeable.
Perhaps surprisingly men are more cooperative in single sex groups than women but in mixed sex groups women are more cooperative.
It seems that when men and women are working together they resort to stereotypical behaviours because of the presence of the opposite sex. Perhaps men like to show women how dominant they are which reduces cooperation.
And sexist men earn more, at least in the USA. Research at Florida University (published in the Journal of Applied Psychology) showed that men with traditional attitudes earned substantially more than their egalitarian colleagues whereas for women it was the other way round – although not such a big salary difference.
Over a 25-year period the traditionally-minded men earned an average of $8,459 more annually than egalitarian-minded men and $11,374 on average more than traditionally-minded women. The gap between egalitarian men and women was much less at $1,330.
The differences occurred regardless of education, type of job, family commitments or hours worked and the researchers aren’t really sure why. They surmise it might be unconscious bias.
Talking of egalitarian men, it seems that “stay at home” dads do better in terms of life, marital, and job satisfaction, than dads who work outside the home, according to research reported at the American Psychological Association‘s 2007 Annual Convention.
Men were staying at home for a number of reasons including deferring to their wives’ higher earnings potential and wanted to be more involved in bringing up their children. Being a full-time dad did have some stigmas attached and they also reported missing the adult work-place interactions (something often mentioned by women when they decide to return to work).
Finally one thing that applies to everybody: taking work home, whether mentally or physically, can make you feel depressed and tired.
Researchers at the University of Konstanz found that the greater people’s workload and work hours the harder it was to detach themselves from work. Workers experiencing high work demands need more recovery time but are less likely to get it because of their work habits and not having time to switch off.
Those workers with hobbies or who engaged in physical activity reported feeling less tired and more engaged. But the researchers also point out that thinking about work can be a mood booster as well if people are reflecting on their successes and accomplishments.
But let’s give the final words to women. There is evidence that while women can contribute a lot to teams they don’t always perform at their best in them. They are also more critical of organisations.
And there are people who believe that women are the winners at work anyway!
Half of workers approaching retirement intend to carry on working into their mid-sixties according to the government’s older workers’ champion Ros Altmann (didn’t know we had one but could she have had a more appropriate surname?)
Almost all the over-50s who planned to keep on working wanted to ease themselves into part-time jobs rather than suddenly stop working altogether,
Ms Altmann said employers’ attitudes “would have to change, with training for older workers imperative so that they could keep up with technological and other workplace changes”
Most of those approaching retirement didn’t realise that they wouldn’t have to pay National Insurance contributions if they carried on working after pension age.
People are being more flexible about when they retire – or can afford to retire – and later-life working is becoming more important.
Originally the Old Age Pension was paid at age 70 when it was introduced in 1908. Pensionable age dropped to 65 in 1925 and it wasn’t until 1940 that a woman could get her pension when she reached 60. Now pension age is creeping up again and people will collect their pensions at 66 until 2020 when the age threshold rises to 67.
Although the default retirement age no longer exists many workers feel that they were expected to go at 65. Many over-50s feel less well thought of than younger workers and 15% had experienced age-related discrimination in the workplace.
In Germany some companies have gone to great lengths to accommodate the needs of older workers e.g. at BMW