Should women be working less than men?

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Should women be working less than men? It’s a question that may strike fear into the heart of equality-driven employers but – according to one new study – there’s science to back up the suggestion.

Researchers from the Australian National University studied 8,000 employees in an attempt to identify the work limit for a healthy life – eventually, they found the limit should be set at 39 hours a week, rather than the 48-hour limit set internationally about 80 years ago.

However, when the academics separated the data into men and women, they found that a woman’s healthy work limit is significantly lower than that of a man’s – sitting at 34 hours and 47 hours respectively.

Dr Huong Dinh from the ANU Research School of Population Health says the disparity is partly due to women taking on the lion’s share of caregiving and domestic work but also because their jobs may be less satisfying due to lower wages and limited opportunities.

"Despite the fact that women on average are as skilled as men, women on average have lower paid jobs and less autonomy than men, and they spend much more time on care and domestic work," says Dinh.

"Given the extra demands placed on women, it's impossible for women to work long hours often expected by employers unless they compromise their health."

According to the researchers, those working above the recommended hours may be at risk of developing mental health problems such as stress, depression or anxiety.

"Long work hours erode a person's mental and physical health, because it leaves less time to eat well and look after themselves properly," says Dinh.

Co-author Lyndall Strazdins urged employers to reconsider the current work week and dispel dated attitudes that long work hours are a requirement for top performance.

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

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