Long Working Hours Linked to Heavy Drinking

Long Working Hours Linked to Heavy Drinking

People who work long hours have increased chances of becoming heavy drinkers, and therefore have increased chances of developing diagnosable alcohol problems, the members of a multinational research team report.

Excessive or heavy drinking is well-recognized as one of the primary indicators for the development of diagnosable drinking problems. In a study review and associated analysis published in January 2015 in the medical journal BMJ, researchers from Harvard University and roughly three dozen European institutions examined the impact that an extended workweek has on the odds that any given individual will initiate or sustain a pattern of heavy alcohol intake. These researchers concluded that people who work 49 hours a week or more have significantly elevated chances of crossing the threshold for excessive drinking.

Heavy Drinking

In the U.S., the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and other well-regarded public health institutions define heavy drinking in men as the regular intake of five alcohol servings (i.e., “drinks”) on a single day or the regular intake of 15 alcohol servings in a single week. Common public health guidelines define the heavy drinking threshold for women as the regular intake of four or more alcohol servings on a single day or eight or more servings in a single week. Other countries sometimes have significantly different definitions for heavy drinking. For example, public officials in some European nations define the practice as the regular consumption of more than 21 drinks per week among men and the regular consumption of more than 14 drinks per week among women.

People who drink heavily have substantially increased chances of meeting the criteria that the American Psychiatric Association uses to identify cases of alcohol use disorder (which includes overlapping or separate symptoms of alcoholism or non-addicted alcohol abuse). In the context of the U.S. definition for heavy drinking, people who engage in the practice at least once a month have about a 25 percent chance of receiving an alcohol use disorder diagnosis. Roughly a third of all individuals who drink excessively once a week will develop alcoholism and/or alcohol abuse. The rate of diagnosis for these related problems in people who drink excessively more than once a week is about 50 percent.

Impact of Working Long Hours

In the study review published in BMJ, researchers from dozens of institutions located in Finland, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark and Belgium used data gathered from 61 previous studies to gauge the impact that working long hours has on the chances that any individual will become a heavy drinker and experience a meaningful elevation of his or her alcohol-related risks. The 61 studies under consideration included information drawn from 333,693 adults residing in 14 European countries. The researchers also looked at data from another 20 studies that included 100,602 residents of nine European countries. For their analysis, they used the common European definition for heavy drinking, which permits substantially higher levels of alcohol consumption than the U.S. heavy drinking definition.

After completing their analysis, the researchers concluded that, compared to people who work 35 to 40 hours a week, people who work 49 hours a week or more have a roughly 0.7 percent to 0.8 percent higher chance of becoming heavy drinkers. Although seemingly small, this difference in heavy drinking rates translates into large numbers of people across multiple countries. The researchers found that men and women have essentially equal chances of drinking heavily when they work 49 hours or more per week. They also found that factors such as socioeconomic standing and specific place of residence do not have a meaningful impact on the alcohol-related dangers associated with working long hours.

In the related analysis published in BMJ, researchers from Harvard University critiqued the findings of the European study review. These researchers point out several potential limitations of the review. For example, they note that a per-week assessment of the amount of work performed by any given person can lead to an underestimation of the importance of factors such as the amount of work performed on individual days and the potential impact of working specific shifts or times of day. The Harvard researchers also believe that a per-week assessment of the connection between alcohol consumption and hours worked may lead to an inadvertent discounting of the fact that many of the workers most strongly affected by alcohol problems change jobs relatively frequently and have greater chances of failing to show up for work. Despite these critiques, the Harvard team confirms the importance of the conclusions outlined in the European study review.

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