Long Hours at Work Tied to Excessive Drinking

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It’s no surprise that long hours at the office can take a toll on your health. Elevated stress and being sedentary for long periods of time are proven detriments to your overall well-being. But new research suggests the negative effects of too much work can extend into unexpected areas—namely, excessive drinking.

The Research

According to a comprehensive meta-analysis published recently in the BMJ (British Medical Journal), researchers believe there may be a link between too much work and excessive alcohol consumption. The analysis of 61 studies comprising over 330,000 people in 14 countries indicates that people who worked longer hours were 11 percent more likely to engage in risky alcohol consumption than those who worked standard hours. People who worked the most hours per week had even higher chances of risky behavior: Those who clocked 49 hours or more per week were 12 to 13 percent more likely to begin risky alcohol use.

The researchers defined “risky” alcohol consumption as more than 14 drinks per week for women and more than 21 drinks per week for men (“moderate” alcohol consumption is typically defined as 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks for men).

Defining “Risky” Alcohol Consumption

Risky alcohol use is common in the general population: About 1 in 4 people are classified as “risk users,” and 9 percent meet the diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder. Long hours on the job are common as well: A recent survey found that almost 4 in 10 people employed full-time work more than 50 hours per week.

Excessive alcohol consumption can be serious, putting drinkers at an increased risk for adverse health consequences like liver disease, cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke, mental disorders, and injuries. There are more global implications as well: Sick employees and missed work days can have a substantial impact on health care and other social costs. But long hours on the job can have adverse health outcomes as well, and too much work has been associated with cardiovascular diseases, depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation, and occupational injuries.

The Alcohol-Overwork Connection

According to the study, the connection between long hours and increased alcohol consumption was consistent across socioeconomic groups, genders, ages, and regions. The consistent results could be due to a number of factors, but previous studies have shown that employees often drink as a quick way to unwind after work. Additionally, the culture of some companies may encourage alcohol consumption as a way of bonding, leading to social pressure to fit in with colleagues.

Combating Alcohol Abuse

The researchers say their findings support recommendations similar to the ones in the European Union, where employees are advised to work no more than 48 hours per week. The US Fair Labor Standards Act doesn’t provide any recommendations for the number of hours employees can work on a weekly basis. According to lead researcher Cassandra A. Okechukwu of the Harvard School of Public Health, workplaces may want to consider putting strategies in place to help employees who work long hours restrict their alcohol consumption.

If your workplace hasn’t implemented any alcohol-avoidance policies, there are plenty of ways you can limit your own drinking:

  • Talk to your supervisor or human resources manager if you’re concerned that excessive work hours are impacting your health.
  • Take initiative and plan activities with your colleagues that don’t involve drinking. Start a running group, book club, bowling league, or set up another bonding event that’s alcohol-free.
  • If your job requires long hours, simple stress reduction strategies can help take the edge off. Mindfulness, meditation, and yoga are all alcohol-free ways to calm your nerves.
  • Rather than wait until tension peaks, utilize stress management tactics throughout the day like meditation apps and regular walks outside.
  • Seek out help if you think you have a drinking problem and be honest with your health care provider about your alcohol use. He or she can point you to resources and tailor a treatment plan that’s right for you.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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