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Women’s long work hours linked to alarming increases in cancer, heart disease

Women who put in long hours for the bulk of their careers may pay a steep price: life-threatening illnesses, including heart disease and cancer.

Work weeks that averaged 60 hours per week or more over three decades appear to triple the risk of diabetes, cancer, heart trouble and arthritis for women, according to new research from The Ohio State University.

The risk begins to climb when women put in more than 40 hours and takes a decidedly bad turn above 50 hours, researchers found.

“Women – especially women who have to juggle multiple roles – feel the effects of intensive work experiences and that can set the table for a variety of illnesses and disability,” said Allard Dembe, professor of health services management and policy and lead author of the study, published online this week in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

“People don’t think that much about how their early work experiences affect them down the road,” he said. “Women in their 20s, 30s and 40s are setting themselves up for problems later in life.”

Men with tough work schedules appeared to fare much better, found the researchers, who analyzed data from interviews with almost 7,500 people who were part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

Women tend to take on the lion’s share of family responsibility and may face more pressure and stress than men when they work long hours, previous research shows. On top of that, work for women may be less satisfying because of the need to balance work demands with family obligations, Dembe said.

Employers and government regulators should be aware of the risks, especially to women who are required to regularly toil beyond a 40-hour work week, he said. Companies benefit in terms of quality of work and medical costs when their workers are healthier, Dembe said.

More scheduling flexibility and on-the-job health coaching, screening and support could go a long way toward reducing the chances employees become sick or die as a result of chronic conditions, he said.

The researchers analyzed the relationship between serious disease and hours worked over a 32-year period.

Previous research has shown that workers who put in long hours face more stress, have more sleep and digestive trouble and are more fatigued. Their work performance suffers and they have more injuries on the job.