Longer work hours linked to more risky alcohol use
At the Boston technology start-up where Chris works, 12-hour days are the norm — except on Fridays, and even some Thursdays, when workers begin tossing back beers in the break room as early as 3 p.m.
“There’s even been a couple of occasions where we’ll go out as a company after work, and people haven’t been there the next morning,” said Chris, who is in his 30s and asked to be identified only by his first name. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we lost an employee.’ ”
Many people may have a drink or two after work, but the stress of long hours could lead some workers to over-imbibe. A recent study shows that people who put in long hours at the office — or in the factory, or standing over the fryolator — had a significantly increased likelihood of drinking to excess.
People who worked 49 or more hours per week were 12 percent to 13 percent more likely to begin risky alcohol use, defined as more than 14 drinks a week for women and more than 21 drinks a week for men, according to the study, published last month in the BMJ, formerly known as the British Medical Journal.
Such risky drinking has been associated with a greater risk of seizure disorders, cirrhosis, cancer, and strokes, according to the study of habits in 14 nations, including the United States, conducted by an international team of researchers led by Marianna Virtanen, a professor at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.
Virtanen said that the results were no surprise.
“People who work long hours have in previous studies reported higher stress levels, distress symptoms, and sleep problems,” she said in an e-mail. “So one might expect that some of them cope with these symptoms by using alcohol.”
The study results may find particular resonance here where a recent Gallup poll found that adult Americans who work full time report working an average of 47 hours per week, seven hours longer than the standard, five-day total. In fact, half of all full-timers say they usually work more than 40 hours, and nearly 40 percent say they work at least 50.
In some offices, as in the start-up where Chris works, beyond workers’ personal habits and preferences, there also can be social pressure to drink. Chelsea resident Elise Anderson, 29, said that she once worked at a biotech company where staff members — who worked long hours but also were apprehensive about the firm’s future after it was purchased by a larger company — broke out bottles of wine on Friday afternoons.
“I really didn’t like the culture,” Anderson said, as she nursed a single beer inside Scholars American Bistro & Cocktail Lounge after work recently.
Anderson now works full time in renewable energy and then goes home to care for her 13-month-old daughter. Each weeknight, she estimates that she has about one precious hour to spend alone with her husband between getting the baby to sleep and her own bedtime, she said, and they usually have a beer or two.
“It helps you sleep, too, I think,” she said. “Just like relaxing, de-stress.”
Previous studies have shown that “sometimes workers drink just as a quick way of relaxing when you’re off of work and shifting into being at home,” said Cassandra Okechukwu, an assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, who wrote an editorial that accompanied Virtanen’s research.
“A study that looked at drinking by shift workers,” she added, “showed that some of them drink to just handle the mental stress but also the physical pain of working. It’s just a quick way to dull everything and move on.”
Virtanen’s team examined data from 63 previous studies featuring more than 300,000 participants, finding that people who worked longer hours were 11 percent more likely to drink to excess.
The researchers also analyzed 20 studies that included more than 100,000 participants from nine countries and found that, over time, those working longer hours were 12 percent more likely to develop new risky drinking habits.
In their review of 18 studies that captured data on individual participants, they found that those who worked 49 to 54 hours per week were 13 percent more likely to begin drinking heavily than those who worked 35 to 40 hours per week.
Those who worked 55 or more hours were 12 percent more likely to start drinking at levels considered to be risky.
The associations between longer hours and heavier drinking were the same regardless of the subjects’ sex, age, country of origin, or socioeconomic status.
Some young people just starting their careers were surprised to hear that there was no difference by age. They felt that attitudes toward drinking could be generational.
“My dad comes home and has a Scotch every night, and so do his friends, but I don’t do that,” said Matthew, 23, who works in finance in downtown Boston and asked to be identified by his middle name.
The current study may do a better job of capturing the risks for college-educated professionals than for low-wage workers, who are more likely to work long, grueling days but then have days off, so that their total hours don’t add up to a long week, Okechukwu said.
“If you measure just by week, you might not capture just how much worse off they are,” Okechukwu said. A small study has shown that shift workers drank more on days they worked than days they had off, she said.
Okechukwu said working long hours has previously been associated with other health risks, and that heavier drinking could be one cause.
“We already know that for some reason people who are working long hours are more likely to develop diabetes and cardiovascular problems,” she said.
Chris wondered whether the dangers of his start-up office’s high-stress workloads were worth it.
“It might be that, for all the good we’re trying to do working ourselves to the bone . . . maybe there is some cost to that,” he said. “Maybe that is the catalyst why this drinking thing has become such a big thing. It’s a needed respite from a crazy workload.”