What is the upper limit to the number of hours we might best work each week? This question relates to the issue of burnout, which occurs when the demands on us outstrip our resources. However resilient we are, we all have limits beyond which extra demands can lead to a range of stress-related symptoms. Such symptoms may include persistent fatigue, sleep difficulties, poor concentration, irritability, less enjoyment of work and increased use of alcohol or drugs. If we don’t reduce demands or bolster our resources, perhaps including seeking support from others, it can lead to depression.
Recent widely reported research from the Australian National University’s Research School of Population Health suggested that working more than 39 hours per week was detrimental to our health. However, the findings were more nuanced, suggesting that the healthy limit was 34 hours for women with substantial domestic and care commitments and up to 47 hours for those men who had lesser such commitments.
In my view, it is worth considering such guidelines as a rule of thumb, but to recognize additional important factors apart from work hours that are relevant to preventing burnout.
First and foremost, it is important that we experience our workload as manageable in terms of its demands, including number of hours and the work we are expected to perform. It also helps to have a degree of autonomy, and a sense of influence or some control over our work roles. Hopefully we see our workplace as fair in its allocation of tasks and rewards offered. It helps to have positive relationships with our colleagues, including a sense of connection, mutual respect and team spirit. Hopefully work roles are consistent with our values, whilst bolstering our sense of purpose and meaning.
Many of these aspects involve subjective elements, so our susceptibility to burnout is affected not just by objective circumstances, but also by how we perceive our work roles and demands. For example, we will more likely view our workload to be unmanageable if we are perfectionistic, or have unrealistic expectations about what we wish to achieve.
Another reason to avoid placing too much emphasis on the number of hours per se is that many people would have experienced periods of needing to exceed 39 hours per week to achieve important goals, without necessarily becoming burnt out. For example, many entrepreneurs who have built substantial businesses might have spent years putting in a considerably larger number of hours over an extended period to establish the business. Without such extended efforts, there would likely be far fewer full-time jobs available for others.
There might also be few corporate leaders, elite sporting coaches, politicians, medical registrars and numerous others who cannot realistically limit their work roles to under 39 hours per week even without external responsibilities. However, to contain burnout in such cases, it might be especially important for them to be compensated for their extra effort by feelings of purpose, autonomy and increased anticipated reward.
Nevertheless, we might ignore this research at our peril. If we feel unduly extended in our work lives it might be important to recognize our personal reactions to stress, pick up warning signs early, consider the efficiency of our work practices, continue to develop our coping skills and reflect on our expectations of ourselves. It helps to consciously prioritise our commitments, especially taking into account the impact on our relationships. Not too many people would lie on their deathbed thinking, “Gee I wish I worked harder”.
Also see our clinical handout on burnout.