It is, perhaps, no great surprise that the long-hours’ culture of many UK employers can have a damaging effect on employees’ health. But the news that female staff are more likely to be adversely affected by working excessive hours than their male counterparts (Personnel Today, 25 July) should sound alarm bells.
The report from the Economic and Social Research Council indicated that women are more prone to snack on unhealthy food, drink caffeine, smoke and take less exercise when working long hours.
Their male colleagues show no such increase.
The study of 422 employees analysed the link between unhealthy behaviour and the number of hassles – such as constant meetings and rude colleagues – experienced during the working day.
“Women who work long hours eat more high-fat and high-sugar snacks, exercise less, drink more caffeine and, if smokers, smoke more than their male colleagues,” said the report’s co-author Dr Daryl O’Connor.
“While for men, working long hours has no negative impact on exercise, caffeine intake or smoking.”
But why are women more susceptible to unhealthy behaviour at work? Are women somehow less able to cope with the demands of the modern office?
Report co-author Dr Fiona Jones said there was no evidence to suggest that women are unable to cope.
Rather, women are still juggling multiple roles at work and at home and are stressed out as a result, according to Jones. “Women look after everything and are more likely to be the primary carers,” she said.
Nick Isles, director of advocacy at the Work Foundation, agreed that women in partnerships usually take more responsibility for the home and children.
“Employers need to recognise the pressures women are under,” he said.
But Dr Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser at manufacturers’ group the EEF, was surprised by the results. “Men are more likely to suffer from depressive illnesses, such as stress, than women,” he said. “Women tend to be better at vocalising how they feel, which can have a cathartic effect.”
Khan added that the findings indicated gender should be taken into consideration when assessing occupational health matters.
Experts agree that implementing stronger flexible-working practices is paramount if the potential of women is not to be lost.
Sarah Jackson, chief executive of charity Working Families, said: “[Employers] have to make flexible working available for all senior-level people, or risk throwing away good skills.”
Jenny Watson, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, agreed: “Greater flexibility at work not only improves staff morale, it has been shown to benefit the bottom line by increasing productivity and staff retention, saving on recruitment costs and holding on to valuable skills and experience.”
Isles said employers have to look at sophisticated ways of measuring productivity through flexible working.
Promoting healthier behaviour at work is also another way in which employers can address the issue. “Businesses can make it easier for people to choose healthier eating options at work and provide exercise facilities,” Jones said.
However, Carolyn Lee, inclusivity manager at law firm Herbert Smith, said her company is trying to move away from making flexible working a women’s issue.
“We’re living in a changing society and I think we have to be careful about where we position flexible working,” she said. “We have to support all employees with caring responsibilities and look at the lifestyle of the working parent.”
Employers should be warned that this flexible agenda is not just about women. Separate research, conducted for finance company First Direct, has identified a new trend in the workplace: the ‘flexi-dad’.
The number of men working part-time has trebled in the past 20 years, the study showed, as increasing numbers of men share more childcare responsibilities.
One in five part-time workers are men, the First Direct report found.
But the current UK labour market is still punishing those who sacrifice career for family, according to Alan Manning, author of a report by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics.
Women still earn an average of 20% less than their male colleagues, the study found. Even women who do not take career breaks usually earn 12% less than men.
“The problem is not that women are choosing one career rather than another. It is that they are continuing to choose family over career at some point in their life,” Manning said.
So perhaps the question is, despite a more balanced approach to parenting, could men still perform as well if they faced the same pressures as women?
- 70% of working mothers still have day-to-day responsibility for raising children.
- 75% of women don’t feel they can share childcare equally with their partner.
- 150 years – the amount of time it will take for women to earn as much as men at current growth rates.
- 30 years on from when equality laws were first introduced, men still earn about 20% more than women by the age of 30.
- 20% of part-time workers are men.
Sources: Allaboutyou.com, London School of Economics, First Direct