Just one day of work per week needed to yield mental health rewards. Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Salford released a study showing that the most “effective dose” of paid work, meaning the amount of employment that contributes to positive mental health benefits, is about one eight-hour day per week.
“We have effective dosage guides for everything from Vitamin C to hours of sleep in order to help us feel better, but this is the first time the question has been asked of paid work,” said study co-author Dr. Brendan Burchell, a sociologist from Cambridge who lead the Employment Dosage research project.
The team first analyzed the link between changes in working hours and mental health in over 70,000 U.K. residents between 2009 and 2018. On average, when a resident shifted from unemployment into paid work (for about eight hours or less per week), their risk of negative mental health issues decreased by 30%.
What’s more is that researchers could not find any evidence to show that working more than eight hours per week — such as a standard, full-time, 40-hour workweek — further boosted positive mental health benefits.
“We know unemployment is often detrimental to people’s wellbeing, negatively affecting identity, status, time use, and sense of collective purpose,” Dr. Burchell added. “We now have some idea of just how much paid work is needed to get the psychosocial benefits of employment — and it’s not that much at all.”
These findings, published in Social Science & Medicine, are pertinent to a society in which automation is becoming more popular in the workplace. Therefore, with not enough work to go around, we may have to rethink how humans can still participate in the workforce and reap the mental health benefits associated with working.
“If there is not enough for everybody who wants to work full-time, we will have to rethink current norms,” said first author Dr. Daiga Kamerāde, from Salford University. “This should include the redistribution of working hours, so everyone can get the mental health benefits of a job, even if that means we all work much shorter weeks. Our findings are an important step in thinking what the minimum amount of paid work people might need in a future with little work to go round.”
The researchers suggest transitioning into five-day weekends, or having employees working fewer hours per day. They also say that increasing annual holidays from weeks to months, or taking months off of work at a time could benefit both employee and employer.
“The traditional model, in which everyone works around 40 hours a week, was never based on how much work was good for people,” said coauthor and Cambridge sociologist Senhu Wang. “Our research suggests that micro-jobs provide the same psychological benefits as full-time jobs.”
“However, the quality of work will always be crucial,” Wang continued. “Jobs where employees are disrespected or subject to insecure or zero-hours contracts do not provide the same benefits to wellbeing, nor are they likely to in the future.”
“If the UK were to plough annual productivity gains into reduced working hours rather than pay rises, the normal working week could be four days within a decade,” Dr. Burchell concluded.
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