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  • A new study links a large number of hours worked in a stressful job to an increased risk for developing depression.
  • Working 90 or more hours per week led to three times the amount of changes in depression symptom scores versus those working 40 to 45 hours a week.
  • Even a person who works long hours in a stressful job can take some steps to protect their mental health.

A recent study done by a team at the University of Michigan published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the more hours a person works at a stressful job each week, the more their risk of depression increases.

The researchers looked at data on more than 17,000 first-year medical residents over 11 years, training at hospitals across the United States. They found that working 90 or more hours a week was linked to three times the increase in depression symptoms when compared to those working 40 to 45 hours a week.

The study found an average symptom increase of 1.8 points on a standard scale for those working 40 to 45 hours versus 5.2 points for residents working more than 90 hours. At the beginning of the first year of residency, only 1 in 20 met the criteria for moderate to severe depression.

The study also found a higher percentage of the group who worked the increased hours also had more frequent scores high enough to qualify for a diagnosis of moderate to severe depression when compared with people working fewer hours. Residents reported working on average between 65 and 80 hours per week.

The study brings the link between mental health concerns and working long hours in a stressful job to light as national organizations, such as the National Academy of Medicine and the Association of American Medical Colleges, try to figure out how to handle the increased rates of depression in health care professionals.

The results of the study highlight a clear need to further reduce the number of hours residents work each week on average.

The study suggests strongly that reducing the amount of hours at work would reduce the number of residents who develop diagnosable depression.

Tess Brigham, MFT, BCC, a life coach and family therapist based in San Francisco, CA thinks this happens because “work is stressful and constant stress on your body impacts you in many ways.”

She says, “If you’re working all the time, you have little or no time to manage your stress or improve your mood.”

Dr. Jennifer Crall, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Quakertown, PA says, “You just don’t have the same time for self care. You don’t have as much time to sleep, eat well, exercise, or have a social life.”

While the study examined first year medical residents, the study authors believe that if similar studies were done in other high-stress, high-work-hour jobs they would show similar negative effects on mental health.

Brigham believes that the number of hours worked may account more for the increased risk of depression than the stressful nature of the job.

She says, “Even if your job is less stressful, the long hours and the limited social/fun time you have available is going to impact you negatively. There was a reason why we went from working 6 days a week to 5 days a week – because eventually even the best employees lose focus and steam when they hit a certain amount of hours. Even if you have the easiest job in the world, if you are stuck inside, behind a desk, working away from the people you love, you’re going to start to feel depressed.”

Crall agrees. “You need the time to take care of yourself and do things to lower cortisol levels and increase serotonin. Your body needs those things to keep itself healthy. When most of your life is spent at work, you don’t have that time”

While major organizations are still sorting out how to handle the increased rates of depression in healthcare professionals, anyone in a stressful job with long hours can work towards better mental health.

Cralls says, “Setting boundaries at work is key. It may not be possible to give yourself a break or take a day off, but you can learn how to set mental boundaries and leave work at work.”

She continues saying, “This might mean saying no to extra things at work or learning how to build up some walls so you are not taking work personally and carrying that stress with you when you leave.”

This might help create some kind of balance when balance seems out of reach due to the number of hours spent at work.

Brigham echoes her thoughts and says, “If you have a job that creates chronic stress you want to learn how to create balance for yourself. Stop seeing yourself as a machine and start seeing yourself as human and recognize you have human needs like rest, play, and sunshine.”

To do this she says, “You have to make some mindset shifts around work and stop feeling like you have to say ‘yes’ to everything.”

Brigham continues, “You can also take medical leave and take some time for yourself away from work to reset and learn how to integrate these techniques into your life and then return to work. It’s really hard to make these changes while you’re working, if you’re already burned out.”