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February 26, 2009

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Working long hours ‘linked’ to mental decline

People who work long hours are at an increased risk of suffering a

decline in their cognitive function.

This close association is revealed

in a major study carried out by the Finnish Institute of Occupational

Health and University College London, and comes ahead of ‘Work Your

Proper Hours Day’ on 27 February.

More than 2200 British civil servants were tested as part of the research, which formed part of the Whitehall II study. They took five different cognitive tests in 1997-99, and again in 2002-04. Employees working very long hours (more than 55 hours per week) and those who worked an average of 41-55 hours performed worse in vocabulary and cognitive-reasoning tests, compared with employees who worked normal working hours (35-40 hours).

Employees with long working hours also slept for shorter periods, reported more symptoms of depression, and consumed more alcohol than those with normal working hours.

It is not, however, known why long working hours seem to have an adverse effect on cognitive function. According to the Institute, several factors may contribute to the process, including sleeping problems, depression, unhealthy lifestyle, and cardiovascular diseases.

The Institute’s professor, Mika Kivimaki, commented: “We will go on with this study question in the future. It is particularly important to examine whether the effects are long-lasting and whether long working hours predict more serious conditions, such as dementia.”

The TUC accepts that the recession will encourage many workers across the country to do all they can — including working beyond their contracted hours — to keep their employers afloat and their jobs secure. But it still intends to celebrate Work Your Proper Hours Day on Friday to get the message across that working excessive hours can be harmful to health.

General secretary, Brendan Barber, told SHP: “This week the TUC is marking Work Your Proper Hours Day by showing that, once again, 5 million workers in the UK are giving their employers seven hours and six minutes of their time for free in unpaid overtime each week. Workers should be applauded for wanting to help their employers out in a downturn but when the economy gets back on its feet, employers must be careful to limit the effect of the long-hours’ culture on their workplaces.”

The results of the study were published in the International American Journal of Epidemiology.

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