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40-Hour Work Week Is Linked To Cognitive Decline, Study Says

40-Hour Work Week Is Linked To Cognitive Decline, Study Says

Earlier this summer, a study focusing on the link between 40-hour work weeks and cognitive decline was published, and it’s got a lot of people thinking.

The study, which was first reported by Science Alert and then picked up by various outlets, showed that people over the age of 40 actually suffer from 40-hour work weeks. Cognitive decline was significant in those that worked what we now consider to be the common work week of eight hours a day, five days a week. In fact, working anything more than a 25-hour work week was deemed to be detrimental to the workforce.

But before you ask for a new work schedule, let’s go over the study and find out what it all means.

The Study

The BBC reports that the study was conducted by researchers at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research in Australia. The study had over 6,500 participants, with over 60% of them being women. All participants were aged 40 and over, held jobs, and had different work schedules. This included people who worked part time and people who worked full time.

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How the results were measured came in the form of three separate tests, all of which tested a cognitive ability. The three main tests focused on memory, reading, and perceptive ability.

What remains unclear, however, is exactly how this study was carried out. While it is assumed that the participants were given the tests at specific intervals and during different weeks, the actual method remains a mystery.

The Results

The results, however, were crystal clear — researchers found that participants in the study that worked part time, or around 25 hours a week, showed no signs of cognitive decline when compared to those who worked full time. It is also interesting to note that participants who worked less than 25 hours a week also showed low cognitive scores, which pinpoints 25 hours as the perfect work week for everyone.

This might come as a surprise to you, especially since the common work week is nearly twice as long as the new ideal work week. But it can be explained using a few key factors that I’ll share with you below.

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Stress, Lack of Sleep, and How it Affects Cognitive Function

It’ll come as no surprise that stress affects cognitive functioning, especially at work. This is because stress has been known to contribute to neuron loss in the brain. This is an important factor to keep in mind because more studies are needed to understand how stress inflames cognitive decline for people working full time.

A lack of sleep is also considered to be a factor in cognitive decline. As we age, a suitable amount of sleep is needed to keep us at our best. But studies have begun to show that pulling all-nighters or working overtime decreases the white matter in the brain, which leads to cognitive decline.

A Word on White Matter

White matter is a phrase that comes up in a lot of cognitive decline studies, and it came up in this study as well. It refers to the pathways neurons use in our brain for communication, language, memory, perception, and more. It’s a vital factor in cognitive function.

When humans age, white matter decreases as the brain shrinks. But in people who are working overtime and aren’t getting enough sleep, the white matter decreases at a significant rate. This is a preventable problem, so make sure you get as much sleep as you need in order to be your best self at work.

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The Takeaway

This study showed that people over the age of 40 are at the risk of cognitive decline when working a 40-hour work week. However, this study only focused on that age group and did not produce results for people aged 18-40, so the results are very specific.

The takeaway is this: As humans, are we willing to risk a decline in cognitive and brain function to work full time?

This is an important question to raise. In many first-world countries, 40-hour work weeks are the norm, and as many governments raise the level for retirement — which is when various social services become available — there are serious questions raised about the workforce’s ability to operate at a high cognitive function.

But it also brings up another point: If 40-year-olds are this affected by the work week, are people under the age of 40 at risk also? Professionals often have families, which gives them extra jobs, extra stress, and could lead to some sort of cognitive decline. We will have to wait and see as new studies are conducted in this area.

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As a freelance writer who works full-time, this study was interesting in that it focused on the actual consequences that working has on the brain. It’s also led me to take into serious consideration how France and Sweden are handling the new information, with both countries taking steps to lower the work-week demands for their citizens. Switzerland also has a shorter work week when compared to Western companies.

Most of all, it has caused me to look back on my own work practices. While I can control my own stress and lack of sleep, my work schedule is something else entirely. But since I’m a freelancer, I have a freedom most don’t — I can set my own hours.

For anyone who’s reading this that works 40 hours a week, it might be time to think about making a change when it comes to your career. Learn about flexible work hour options, which many organizations are introducing, and take your vacation days. You’ve earned them.

But most of all, take the time to care for yourself. No job is worth losing cognitive function.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Last Updated on September 28, 2020

The Pros and Cons of Working from Home

The Pros and Cons of Working from Home

At the start of the year, if you had asked anyone if they could do their work from home, many would have said no. They would have cited the need for team meetings, a place to be able to sit down and get on with their work, the camaraderie of the office, and being able to meet customers and clients face to face.

Almost ten months later, most of us have learned that we can do our work from home and in many ways, we have discovered working from home is a lot better than doing our work in a busy, bustling office environment where we are inundated with distractions and noise.

One of the things the 2020 pandemic has reminded us is we humans are incredibly adaptable. It is one of the strengths of our kind. Yet we have been unknowingly practicing this for years. When we move house we go through enormous upheaval.

When we change jobs, we not only change our work environment but we also change the surrounding people. Humans are adaptable and this adaptability gives us strength.

So, what are the pros and cons of working from home? Below I will share some things I have discovered since I made the change to being predominantly a person who works from home.

Pro #1: A More Relaxed Start to the Day

This one I love. When I had to be at a place of work in the past, I would always set my alarm to give me just enough time to make coffee, take a shower, and change. Mornings always felt like a rush.

Now, I can wake up a little later, make coffee and instead of rushing to get out of the door at a specific time, I can spend ten minutes writing in my journal, reviewing my plan for the day, and start the day in a more relaxed frame of mind.

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When you start the day in a relaxed state, you begin more positively. You find you have more clarity and more focus and you are not wasting energy worrying about whether you will be late.

Pro #2: More Quiet, Focused Time = Increased Productivity

One of the biggest difficulties of working in an office is the noise and distractions. If a colleague or boss can see you sat at your desk, you are more approachable. It is easier for them to ask you questions or engage you in meaningless conversations.

Working from home allows you to shut the door and get on with an hour or two of quiet focused work. If you close down your Slack and Email, you avoid the risk of being disturbed and it is amazing how much work you can get done.

An experiment conducted in 2012 found that working from home increased a person’s productivity by 13%, and more recent studies also find significant increases in productivity.[1]

When our productivity increases, the amount of time we need to perform our work decreases, and this means we can spend more time on activities that can bring us closer to our family and friends as well as improve our mental health.

Pro #3: More Control Over Your Day

Without bosses and colleagues watching over us all day, we have a lot more control over what we do. While some work will inevitably be more urgent than others, we still get a lot more choice about what we work on.

We also get more control over where we work. I remember when working in an office, we were given a fixed workstation. Some of these workstations were pleasant with a lot of natural sunlight, but other areas were less pleasant. It was often the luck of the draw whether we find ourselves in a good place to work or not.

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By working from home we can choose what work to work on and whether we want to face a window or not. We can get up and move to another place, and we can move from room to room. And if you have a garden, on nice days you could spend a few hours working outside.

Pro #4: You Get to Choose Your Office Environment

While many companies will provide you with a laptop or other equipment to do your work, others will give you an allowance to purchase your equipment. But with furniture such as your chair and desk, you have a lot of freedom.

I have seen a lot of amazing home working spaces with wonderful sets up—better chairs, laptop stands that make working from a laptop much more ergonomic and therefore, better for your neck.

You can also choose your wall art and the little nick-nacks on your desk or table. With all this freedom, you can create a very personal and excellent working environment that is a pleasure to work in. When you are happy doing your work, you will inevitably do better work.

Con #1: We Move a Lot Less

When we commute to a place of work, there is movement involved. Many people commute using public transport, which means walking to the bus stop or train station. Then, there is the movement at lunchtime when we go out to buy our lunch. Working in a place of work requires us to move more.

Unfortunately, working from home naturally causes us to move less and this means we are not burning as many calories as we need to.

Moving is essential to our health and if you are working from home you need to become much more aware of your movement. To ensure you are moving enough, make sure you take your lunch breaks. Get up from your desk and move. Go outside, if you can, and take a walk. And, of course, refrain from regular trips to the refrigerator.

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Con #2: Less Human Interaction

One of the nicest things about bringing a group of people together to work is the camaraderie and relationships that are built over time. Working from home takes us away from that human interaction and for many, this can cause a feeling of loss.

Humans are a social species—we need to be with other people. Without that connection, we start to feel lonely and that can lead to mental health issues.

Zoom and Microsoft Teams meeting cannot replace that interaction. Often, the interactions we get at our workplaces are spontaneous. But with video calls, there is nothing spontaneous—most of these calls are prearranged and that’s not spontaneous.

This lack of spontaneous interaction can also reduce a team’s ability to develop creative solutions—there’s just something about a group of incredibly creative people coming together in a room to thrash out ideas together that lends itself to creativity.

While video calls can be useful, they don’t match the connection between a group of people working on a solution together.

Con #3: The Cost of Buying Home Office Equipment

Not all companies are going to provide you with a nice allowance to buy expensive home office equipment. 100% remote companies such as Doist (the creators of Todoist and Twist) provide a $2,000 allowance to all their staff every two years to buy office equipment. Others are not so generous.

This can prove to be expensive for many people to create their ideal work-from-home workspace. Many people must make do with what they already have, and that could mean unsuitable chairs that damage backs and necks.

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For a future that will likely involve more flexible working arrangements, companies will need to support their staff in ways that will add additional costs to an already reduced bottom line.

Con #4: Unique Distractions

Not all people have the benefit of being able to afford childcare for young children, and this means they need to balance working and taking care of their kids.

For many parents, being able to go to a workplace gives them time away from the noise and demands of a young family, so they could get on with their work. Working from home removes this and can make doing video calls almost impossible.

To overcome this, where possible, you need to set some boundaries. I know this is not always possible, but it is something you need to try. You should do whatever you can to make sure you have some boundaries between your work life and home life.

Final Thoughts

Working from home can be hugely beneficial for many people, but it can also bring serious challenges to others.

We are moving towards a new way of working. Therefore, companies need to look at both the pros and cons of working from home and be prepared to support their staff in making this transition. It will not be impossible, but a lot of thought will need to go into it.

More About Working From Home

Featured photo credit: Standsome Worklifestyle via unsplash.com

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