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Working atypical hours can be bad for your health in the long term: study

It has been established that atypical working hours, i.e., those that fall outside the traditional 9 am to 5 pm framework, can hurt workers' physical and mental health, as well as their social and family lives

Published: Apr 6, 2024 07:05:59 AM IST
Updated: Apr 5, 2024 05:07:56 PM IST

Working atypical hours can be bad for your health in the long term: studyAtypical working hours can have a negative impact on the health and well-being of those who work them. Image: Alistair Berg / Getty Images

With the rise of remote working, schedules are becoming more flexible. But staggered working hours are not without medical consequences. A study published in the journal PLOS highlights the harmful effects of atypical working hours on those who adopt them early in their careers.

It has been established that atypical working hours, ie, those that fall outside the traditional 9 am to 5 pm framework, can have a negative impact on workers' physical and mental health, as well as on their social and family lives. But a new study is based on a longer-term perspective than previous research on the subject.

Its author, Wen-Jui Han of New York University, drew on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth-1979, which surveyed over 7,000 Americans over a 30-year period. The researcher wanted to determine whether working atypical hours at the start of a professional career had adverse repercussions decades later, once people reach their 50s.

It emerged that the majority of participants in the study worked standard 9-to-5 hours more or less regularly. Conversely, 17% had worked standard hours when they were in their 20s, before shifting to atypical or "volatile" working hours (evenings, nights, etc.). Some 12% had a similar pattern of employment: they started their careers working standard hours, before transitioning to more variable working hours.

Wen-Jui Han found that people who had worked atypical hours during their working lives had more health problems in their 50s than those who worked from 9 am to 5 pm. They were more likely to present depressive symptoms at the age of 50, and tended to have disturbed sleep.

Also read: Is it time to call time on traditional office hours?

Women more at risk than men

It is interesting to note that, over the long term, the adverse effects of atypical working hours were particularly marked in working people who had stable working hours in their 20s, before changing to an atypical working schedule in their 30s.

Moreover, Wen-Jui Han noted that certain categories of the American population were more exposed to these risks than others. Women who worked atypical hours were more likely to suffer from sleep disorders than their male counterparts. But it's Black women, in particular, who suffer most from the adverse effects of volatile work schedules. "[A]cross all education categories, Black females who had the "early ST-volatile" employment pattern [ie, those who had stable working hours at the start of their career before adopting a more atypical work pattern, Ed.] reported the highest likelihood of having poor health among all groups examined," the researcher writes.

This research shows the extent to which atypical working hours can affect the health and well-being of those who work them. The medical risks involved vary according to the schedule. For example, working nights has a greater impact on sleep quality than working evenings or weekends. Whatever the case, preventive measures need to be taken within companies to reduce the risks associated with alternative working patterns.