A new study explores the correlation between working too much and excess alcohol - but equally important is how well integrated you are in the workplace and the pattern of your working hours
Is there a link between excessive alcohol use and the length of the working day? A new study of 330,000 individuals published in the BMJ has made headlines by concluding that employees who exceed the EU working time directive of 48 hours per week are more likely to consume harmful levels of alcohol.
"Risky" alcohol use was defined as consuming more than 21 units per week for men and more than 14 units per week for women. Both lengthy working hours and excessive alcohol consumption have long been associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, liver cirrhosis, cancers, seizure disorders and strokes.
The study found the association between risky alcohol use and lengthy working hours to be independent of age, gender or even socioeconomic status. The latter is particularly notable, as it encapsulates alcohol's enduring and addictive appeal as a rapid means of pain or stress relief across the entire spectrum of employees, regardless of social stereotypes.
However, before strong conclusions can be drawn, it is worth noting that the percentage increase of risky alcohol use in individuals who work more than 48 hours a week compared with those who don't, was found to be just 0.8%. Perhaps more nuanced studies are needed to analyse factors such as the distribution of hours across the working week, which can increase stress as well as behavioural patterns and working cultures that can influence alcohol consumption.
Previous studies have suggested that employees who are not well integrated in the workplace are more at risk of developing problematic patterns of alcohol consumption, a trend also seen in individuals who are more genetically prone to impulsive and risk-taking behaviour. Those who work in highly competitive industries, known for a "work hard, play hard" culture that revolves significantly around alcohol, are often found to have a "type A" behaviour pattern defined by aggressive, irritable personality traits and an overwhelming drive to try and achieve more and more targets in increasingly smaller amounts of time. Individuals who suffer from underlying depressive and sleep problems also deal less well with stressful work environments that may cause them to develop alcohol use problems.
There is also thought to be a limitation in studies that merely consider the total number of hours worked per week. Daily working patterns are thought to be a far more accurate measure of understanding why different subcategories of individuals can be driven to excessive alcohol use.
People with a lack of stability in their working week due to intermittent unemployment, night shifts, frequent schedule changes and excessively lengthy shifts on particular days have been found to have a more unhealthy relationship with alcohol, even though their working week may total under 48 hours.While those working longer weeks may be marginally more prone to developing an alcohol problem, more detailed information regarding the working and home environment and resilience to stress is likely to be a more useful means of reducing problems with alcohol use in the working population.
Long hours and irregular shifts can increase alcohol intake. Photograph: /Carole Gomez