Health Effects of Work Time Aren’t Always Straightforward

How does work time affect your health? Long work hours are one factor — but other factors like time pressure and control over the pace of work can also play a role, according to a study in the April Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
“[T]he intensity of working is a more influential predictor of stress and psychosomatic symptoms than a large number of work hours,” according to the report by Jussi Tanskanen, MSocSci, a doctoral student at University of Jyväskylä, Finland. He used a new approach (the generalized additive model) to simultaneously analyze how various aspects of work time affected psychological and stress-related physical (somatic) symptoms, based on data from Finnish national surveys.
The results showed that work time had a “U-shaped” effect on health: psychological and somatic symptoms were increased for employees who worked either shorter or longer hours. Harmful effects of work time began to appear only after 60 hours per week.
Time pressure was another important factor, especially for psychological symptoms. While smaller amounts of time pressure weren’t harmful, symptoms “increased remarkably” for employees with high ratings of time pressure: over 6 on a 10-point scale.
Employees with more control over the pace of work had fewer symptoms, but control over working time had no effect. Surprisingly, work schedules were unrelated to symptoms. The study also found some interactions between aspects of work time. Notably, the harmful effects of time pressure were buffered by higher control over the pace of work.
Most studies of how work affects health have focused on work hours or other individual aspects of work time. The new study shows that multiple aspects of work time affect symptoms, and that some of these associations are curvilinear, rather than linear.
While the study can’t show any cause-and-effect relationships, it may inform efforts to reduce the health impact of working hours and related stress. “Organisations should ensure that work intensity stays tolerable and employees have sufficient time to rest and balance work with other life domains,” Mr. Tanskanen concludes. “Workplace practices, policies and interventions that reduce for example high workload and tight deadlines should be implemented.”
About the Author
Mr. Tanskanen may be contacted for interviews at
ACOEM (, an international society of 4,500 occupational physicians and other health care professionals, provides leadership to promote optimal health and safety of workers, workplaces, and environments.
About the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine
The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine ( is the official journal of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Edited to serve as a guide for physicians, nurses, and researchers, the clinically oriented research articles are an excellent source for new ideas, concepts, techniques, and procedures that can be readily applied in the industrial or commercial employment setting.


Tanskanen J. Bending Work Time: Curvilinear Relationship Between Working Time Dimensions and Psychological and Somatic Symptoms. J Occup Environ Med. 2020;62(4):253-9.