A recently published Canadian study found a disturbing, gender-dependent link between working long hours and diabetes risk. The comprehensive study examined a large 7,065-person sample size, spanned 12 years, and studied both men and women. The study’s conclusion that work affects our diabetes risk is perhaps no surprise; what was surprising is that longer work hours increases diabetes risk for women but reduces risk for men.
Defining diabetes risk factors, and reducing them, is in everyone’s best interest. Approximately 430 million people worldwide will have diabetes in 2030, up from approximately 285 million in 2010. The American Diabetes Association estimated that in 2017 the cost of diagnosed diabetes was $327 billion—$90 billion of which was attributed to lost productivity. All this, of course, apart from the mental and emotional cost of a life-altering chronic disease.
The study’s authors set out to identify modifiable risk factors in order to “improve prevention and orient policy making” and ultimately reduce the the prevalence of diabetes. The study included 3,502 women and 3,563 men who were employed at the time of the study, and after 12 years results showed that women who worked 45 hours or more per week had a 63% greater risk of diabetes than women who worked between 35 and 40 hours. These results were only slightly mitigated when adjusted for lifestyle factors like smoking, exercise habits, and body-mass index.
The increased diabetes risk from long work hours is thought to be linked to increased stress. Stress affects blood sugar, and over time it can contribute to type 2 diabetes. Stress also makes diabetes harder to control. But if it’s the stress that increases diabetes risk, why doesn’t it affect men in the same way? The study actually found that men’s risk of diabetes decreased as their work hours increased.
There are a couple of theories as to why this might be the case. The first is that men tend to work at more physically active jobs that help them stay healthier. Study authors noted that greater than a third of the men in their study who reported working long hours also had jobs that required physical activity.
It could also be that these same men working long hours have partners working fewer hours who are able to perform more unpaid work (like housework). This would leave more leisure time for the men in the study. Another theory is that men get an important sense of identity through work, so working long hours may not create as much stress.
It could also be that women may get less time for self-care, because they tend to do more unpaid tasks outside of work. One of the study’s authors, Mahee Gilbert-Ouimet, said that this unpaid work could be part of the stress that contributes to diabetes. “If you think about all the unpaid work they do on their off-hours, like household chores for example, they simply do more than men, and that can be stressful, and stress negatively impacts your health,” she said.
Having to work long hours to make ends meet also leads to time poverty, which means that people don’t have time to exercise, get proper sleep, or cook healthy meals at home. The relationship between work hours, stress, and poor health sometimes make it difficult to define unique risk factors, but the study found that the “deleterious effect” of working long hours on a woman’s health stood up to adjustment for socioeconomic, sociodemographic, and other health conditions.
The results are strong enough that the study suggests that “Promoting the regular workweek of 35–40 hours might be an effective strategy for preventing diabetes among women.” Certainly, there are many women who would be more than willing to experiment with a shorter workweek—for the sake of scientific advancement, of course.
The cost of diabetes is too high to ignore. A shorter workweek, as the study suggests, could lessen diabetes risk for women and reduce the overall cost of diabetes on the population as a whole. At any rate, it certainly sounds like there are a lot of ladies that could use the break.
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.