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Too much overtime risky, prior health woes are worse
Long workdays alone as harmful as believed?
Working extended overtime hours for a long period of time has been shown to increase health and safety risks, but an occupational medicine study indicates that factors such as previous health problems carry a much greater risk to workers' health.
Employee health and productivity consultant Harris Allen Jr., PhD, of the Harris Allen Group, a Brookline, MA-based group that conducts research on measuring and managing the public's experiences, viewpoints, and behaviors on health, health care, productivity, and safety issues. Allen says the results of his sampling of 2,800 workers indicates the assumption that each hour of work above 40 hours a week increases health and safety risks may only be partly right.1
"In fact, no adverse effects were found until the 60-hour-per-week mark," says Allen. "Even then, the effects were limited to an increased risk of workers' compensation episodes for hourly female employees with a history of workers' comp episodes, and to an increased risk of new musculoskeletal diagnoses for older workers."
Allen says his study raises doubts about across-the-board restrictions on work hours and suggests that in some cases such directives sacrifice productivity and competitiveness unnecessarily.
Using a database of information on a sample of workers at a heavy manufacturer, Allen and his colleagues analyzed the effects of work hours on health, safety, and productivity outcomes. At the time of the study, the company had a policy of strongly encouraging but not mandating overtime, resulting in an employee average of more than 43 work hours per week.
In Allen's findings, while some employees working 60 or more hours posted a higher rate of injuries and other health problems, those with other job and demographic characteristics working 60 or more hours per week did not show the added risk. Nor did employees working more moderate overtime (48 to 59 hours) face more risk, regardless of their job and demographic characteristics.
The researchers said overtime was unrelated to presenteeism, when employees are at work but performing at diminished levels.
The biggest factors in employee performance, health, and safety were ones that existed before the employees clocked overtime hours: pay and other benefits, demographics, and prior health and disease status. According to William B. Bunn III, MD, a co-author of the report Allen's group prepared on their findings,1 "Although work hours are a factor, they should be considered alongside previous health and other factors that comprise the larger context within which employee health, productivity, and safety outcomes are determined. On both the research and policy fronts, more emphasis needs to be focused on prior health and other antecedents to the number of hours worked that better predict employee safety, lost productivity, and future health."
1. Allen HM Jr., Slavin T, Bunn WB III. Do long workhours impact health, safety, and productivity at a heavy manufacturer? J Occup Environ Med 2007; 49:148-171.