SOURCES: Marianna Virtanen, Ph.D., Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Helsinki; Cassandra Okechukwu, Sc.D., assistant professor, department of social and behavioral sciences, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; James Garbutt, M.D., professor, psychiatry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Jan. 13, 2015, BMJ, online
TUESDAY, Jan. 13, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Working long hours may raise the risk for alcohol abuse, according to a new study of more than 300,000 people from 14 countries.
Researchers found that employees who worked more than 48 hours a week were almost 13 percent more likely to drink to excess than those who worked 48 hours or less.
"Although the risks were not very high, these findings suggest that some people might be prone to coping with excess working hours by habits that are unhealthy, in this case by using alcohol above the recommended limits," said study author Marianna Virtanen, from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki.
Risky drinking is considered to be more than 14 drinks a week for women and more than 21 drinks a week for men. Drinking this much may increase the risk of health problems such as liver disease, cancer, stroke, heart disease and mental disorders, the researchers said.
Virtanen believes that workers who drink to excess may be trying to cope with a variety of work-related ills. "I think the symptoms people try to alleviate with alcohol may include stress, depression, tiredness and sleep disturbances," she said.
Virtanen was careful to say this study could only show an association between long work hours and risky drinking, not that working long hours caused heavy drinking. "With this type of study, you can never fully prove the cause-and-effect relationship," she said.
The report was published online Jan. 13 in the BMJ.
"The paper supports the longstanding suspicion that many workers may be using alcohol as a mental and physical painkiller, and for smoothing the transition from work to home," said Cassandra Okechukwu, author of an accompanying journal editorial. Okechukwu is an assistant professor in the department of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health.
"Many workers are working long hours, and there are many efforts to curtail regulations against working long hours," she said. "However, policymakers should think carefully before exempting workers from restrictions on working hours."
Okechukwu added: "We always look at the content of work when thinking about health, but the hours worked is turning out to be very important to health. Workers, their loved ones, health care professionals, policymakers and everyone concerned about health need to pay attention to the impact of long working hours on health."
For the study, Virtanen's team collected data on more than 333,000 people in 14 countries. They found that longer working hours increased the likelihood of high rates of alcohol consumption by 11 percent. An analysis of an additional 100,600 people from nine countries found a similar increase in risk.
Statistics from 18 published studies showed that those who worked 49 to 54 hours a week had a 13 percent increased risk of excess drinking. And those who worked 55 hours a week or more had an increased risk of 12 percent compared with those who worked 35 to 40 hours per week, the researchers added.
These findings did not differ for men and women or by age, socioeconomic status or country, the study authors noted.
Dr. James Garbutt, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said, "The evidence seems quite strong that longer [work] hours is associated with an increased likelihood of risky drinking developing."
It's not clear from this study whether some other factor, such as the nature of those who work longer hours, contributes to drinking, he said.
"Nevertheless, the idea that we need to think carefully before pushing workers to work longer hours, as this could increase drinking levels, seems reasonable," Garbutt said.
Visit the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism for more on risky drinking.