Last week two reporters asked me to comment on an article in the open-access journal PLos ONE.
Citation: Virtanen M, Stansfeld SA, Fuhrer R, Ferrie JE, Kivima¨ki M (2012) Overtime Work as a Predictor of Major Depressive Episode: A 5-Year Follow-Up of the Whitehall II Study. PLoS ONE 7(1): e30719. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030719
The study, by Virtanen and others, followed 2,123 British civil servants for 6 years. It found that workers who put in an average of at least 11 hours per day at the office had roughly two and a half times higher odds of developing depression than their colleagues who worked a standard 7 or 8 hours. The association of long workdays with depression persisted even after the researchers took into account potentially confounding factors such as job strain, the level of support in the workplace, alcohol use, smoking, and chronic physical diseases.
Psychiatrists know that many factors contribute to a person’s becoming depressed. These days we assume genetic and early-life variables set the stage for depression later in life. But immediate factors play a role too. Working long hours for an extended period takes away time to unwind, to seek comfort and pleasures in recreation, friends, and loved ones. Then there is the element of control. In the Virtanen study, the length of the workday didn’t have a perceptible impact on the mental health of higher-paid, top-level British civil servants —employees such as cabinet secretaries, directors, team leaders, and policy managers. I have the good fortune of choosing when I work extra and on what projects. It’s more fun and less adverse
When we consult to individuals or employers, we’ll want to keep this study in mind. Individuals at risk for depression should be cautious about long stretches of overtime work—if they have a realistic choice. And supervisors will want to take a long view: get extra work accomplished, but don’t burn out your most valuable workers.
-Alan J. Gelenberg, M.D.
Editor, Biological Therapies in Psychiatry
Shively/Tan Professor and Chair, Psychiatry, Penn State University
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry