Sue Caro understands the risks of working long hours. She had worked in television news for 10 years and was a programme director when, in 1989, her employers changed her terms and conditions of employment, making overtime virtually compulsory. 'This meant I could be called, at short notice, to work long, unsociable shifts - up to 14 hours - and you had to have a very good reason to refuse. I had no control over my life.'
'The hours I was working and my family commitments meant I never had enough time to wind down properly. I constantly felt extremely tired, lacking in energy and nauseous. I felt I was being treated unfairly and had strong feelings of repressed anger. My sleep was very disrupted and my eczema got much worse.'
In December 1990, when pregnant with her second child, Caro broke down during an ante-natal appointment (for which her line manager had not wanted her to take time off work) and her doctor advised a month's sick leave because of her stress. While on maternity leave, she applied for voluntary redundancy and chose self-employment. Feeling that 'full-time work these days means whole-time work', Caro now aims to work three days a week. 'My health and spending time with my family are worth more to me than a large pay check,' she says.
Caro's experience of the impact of long working hours on health is certainly not unique. Indeed, research published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology in 1997 confirms that the more hours you work, the worse your health is likely to be. With UK workers now at their desks and benches for far longer than their counterparts anywhere else in Europe, this finding has major implications for employer and employee alike.
The research, led by Kate Sparks of the Manchester School of Management at UMIST, is the first-ever comprehensive analysis of over 30 separate studies into the effects of working hours on health. It concludes that long working hours can not only feel stressful, they are also linked to physical problems like headaches, fatigue, repetitive strain injury and heart disease. 'Long hours also increase the likelihood of accidents and the adoption of unhealthy habits like smoking, excessive drinking, a poor diet and a lack of exercise,' says Sparks.
Caro's sense of losing control reflects another key finding in the research. 'If someone chooses to work long hours, it has less effect on their health than if they feel forced to,' says Sparks. With many services - especially broadcasting, retailing and banking - now available 24 hours a day and with job insecurity encouraging a workplace culture of 'presenteeism', more and more of us are likely to feel we have less and less choice about how hard we work.
Interestingly, women's health is worse affected by long hours than men's. One study found that while men who worked overtime actually had a lower hospitalisation incidence than other working men, the opposite was true for women. Other research has detected links between increases in overtime and a rise in women's deaths from heart disease but no similar risk for men.
This is not because women are constitutionally weaker. 'Men are probably less affected by longer hours partly because, as men, they expect to have to work those hours and partly because they derive much more of their self-identity through work,' suggests Sparks. The fact that women may have the additional stress of domestic responsibilities could also help to explain these gender differences. A survey published by PPP Healthcare found that 32 per cent of mothers (compared to 20 per cent of fathers) felt that juggling the conflicting demands of work and children was damaging their health.
Employers have generally been slow to accept the dangers of long hours. A CBI survey of 700 companies found that the majority of employers did not believe working hours were a significant cause of absence. It is not surprising, therefore that the UK is the only EU state where the number of hours worked each week has increased over the past decade. Research by Incomes Data Services in 1997 found that less than two per cent of organisations had cut their basic hours in the previous year.
Some of the problems caused by long working hours will undoubtedly be eased by the European Working Time Directive, a EU health and safety initiative implemented in the UK in October 1998. But while the directive has set a maximum 48-hour week for the majority of workers, this may be averaged over a four-month period so employees can still be expected to work well over 48 hours for weeks at a time. The Government also decided to allow individual staff to work longer if they choose to do so. In many workplaces, especially where staff are not unionised or are on low hourly rates of pay, the line between choice and compulsion may well prove to be distinctly blurred.
Even if the directive is rigidly adhered to, 48 hours a week is still a long time to work. The research from Manchester shows that while there is good evidence that health risks increase significantly after 48 hours, those risks can still exist when fewer hours are spent at work. It seems that the Directive can only be seen as a first step in the regulation of this increasing problem.