There’s a new magic number. 39. That’s the number of hours you should be working in any given working week. That is, unless you want to get sick. That’s a substantial number less than the 49-hour week limit that was brought in around 80 years ago as the internationally recognised number of what a person should be slogging out for a wage.

A new study, published in the journal of Social Science and Medicine1 has found that working beyond 39 hours a week puts employees at risk of developing mental health problems. With almost a quarter of Australians working longer than 39 hours per week. Using data from 8,000 working adults as part of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in an Australian Survey.

When the study assessed men and women separately they found the numbers didn’t add up the same way. The healthy work limit for men was higher around 47-hours per week on average. This was substantially lower for women who came in around 34-hours per week once all their other commitments were taken into account. Men generally spent much less time on household or domestic responsibilities than women do.

“Women are doing other work – much more extra work outside the labour market,” said co-author of the study, Professor Lyndall Strazdins of ANU.

The researchers believe what’s at the core here is that we need to have a cultural shift away from thinking that working longer hours means you’re doing well at your job. Strazdins advice after reviewing the study was to suggest that employers look at ways to support their staff to work shorter hours.

“My message is to their managers and our policy makers to start a national debate on how long is too long,” she said.

Moreover, she pointed out, that an employee shouldn’t feel they have to work long hours in order to continue to remain employed.

In some ways it’s a case of monkey see, monkey do. If everyone else is working long hours and the cultural expectation of the company is that one works long hours, then the changes need to come from the top. However, one only needs to see the effects in such studies as these of people suffering from mental health issues, anxiety, depression to realise that whilst working is important, so too is the capacity to live a healthy life.

Is it perhaps a case of working smarter not harder?

We can also look at implementing successful ways to negate stress in our bodies, from making sure you’re adjusted regularly with chiropractic care, eating well, yoga, exercise, meditation and planned leisure time. If we wait for others to start taking care of our well-being first, it may be too late to restore the damage. Preventative care now, may well halt the effects of long work hours and poor work life balance before it takes hold.