Flexible work policy has health benefits: Experts
In contrast, the incidence of diabetes tends to go down for men who work longer hours, found the research by the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) and Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) in Toronto.
The study is part of a larger research project attempting to understand the relationship between aspects of the work environment and chronic disease, according to Peter Smith, senior scientist at the IWH.
“Different aspects of work play fairly important roles in the development of a lot of different diseases.”
Using information provided by Statistics Canada, the study followed 7,065 Ontario workers aged 35 to 74 who were initially free of diabetes. Over a 12-year period, 10 per cent of the workers developed diabetes, with a higher incidence among men (12.2 per cent) than women (7.5 per cent), found the study, published in the BMJ Open Diabetes Research and Care journal in July.
Diabetes is a chronic disease in which the body either cannot produce or use insulin, leading to high blood sugar levels and the potential for damage to organs, blood vessels and nerves. There are currently 11 million Canadians living with diabetes or prediabetes, according to Diabetes Canada in Ottawa.
While the study did not identify the reasons for the link between long work hours and the risks of diabetes in women, responsibilities outside of work such as house chores, child-rearing or care-giving may be a factor, according to Mahée Gilbert-Ouimet, a post-doctoral fellow at IWH and the study’s lead author.
Women often work the same number of hours per week as men, but endure an imbalance in work pressures at home, she said.
“The total number of hours worked by women will be fairly higher than that of men because we see in Canada, the U.S., and in several other industrialized countries, that women still tend to assume over twice as many family responsibility hours per week than men,” said Gilbert-Ouimet.
“It affects their habits, their time to take care of themselves, and it also puts a physical and psychological strain on their body. So their nervous system is kind of always under attack.”
The pressure can increase the secretion of cortisol — a stress hormone — which can lead to difficulties breaking down sugar and increase the risk of developing diabetes, she said.
When a man is working longer hours, he is often supported by a partner who is working fewer hours and taking on more of the home burden, said Smith.
For women working long hours, that is not always the case, and they are often left to complete “double duty,” he said.
Advice for HR
The study’s results can provide employers with an opportunity for reflection, said Smith.
“All workplaces could probably benefit from giving people time to disconnect from the workplace,” he said.
“I know that some workplaces develop policies whereby they’ve got protocols around when it’s appropriate to send emails or how people can disconnect during the workday and after the workday.”
It is important — in respect to both health and productivity — that employees enter the workplace refreshed, said Smith.
Research has revealed that long hours at work relate to health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, strokes and mental health issues — with impacts on both men and women, he said.
“There’s a rationale to potentially think about ways to reduce long work hours or provide people with the autonomy to… structure their work hours (in a way) that enables them to fit other responsibilities that they have outside of work.”
Employers should promote a regular workweek of 35 to 40 hours, said Gilbert-Ouimet.
“Little changes” — such as allowing workers to manage their schedules to help alleviate home pressures — are also beneficial, she said.
Promoting healthy food, allowing time for physical activity, or providing discounts for gym membership or smoking-cessation programming are also steps employers can take, according to Seema Nagpal, epidemiologist and senior leader of government relations and public policy at Diabetes Canada.
“For people living with diabetes, it is important that employers support their staff to achieve their best possible health,” she said.
“Improving the social determinants of health (is) integral to preventing diabetes.”
Flex work and work-life balance are increasingly on the mind of Canadian employees, said Smith.
“Progressive organizations try to have those conversations… to make sure that people are satisfied with their work, but also have the balance between their work and their non-work roles.”