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Are You Depressed From Working Too Hard Or Working Too Hard Because You Are Depressed?

In this industry filled with long hours, it seems that many would be interested in this piece from The New York Times health blog called “Well” that tries to answer a question as to the relationship between work hours and depression. The piece is titled, Really? The Claim: Long Work Hours Can Cause Depression:

Routinely putting in extra hours at the office can put a strain on your social life. But can too much overtime cause depression?

Scientists put the question to the test in a study of more than 2,000 white-collar workers. Previous research hinted at a link between long hours and depressed mood, and the researchers, at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki, wanted to examine the issue in depth.

For about five years, they collected data on British civil servants. All of the workers, whose average age at the start was 47, had no mental health problems at the outset. And the researchers adjusted their results to rule out other risk factors, like socioeconomic status, social support, gender and substance use.

Ultimately, the men and women who routinely worked 11 hours a day or more had more than double the risk of developing depression compared with those who usually worked eight hours or less.

The piece also claims another study corroborated some of the findings.

We read both studies and have our doubts that the researchers are studying what they think they are studying.

To take the most obvious points, there may be a post hoc ergo proptor hoc kind of fallacy here. They see people who work more hours are anxious or depressed and assume causality. It is at least as likely that the causality goes the other way.

For example, if you are having financial problems, you may indeed be anxious or depressed and you may also take all the overtime you can get, but the financial problem is the cause of both the depression and the overtime. Indeed one might be more depressed if one has financial problems and no way of making extra money.

It is also possible that people who have unhappy family lives or few rewarding friendships may elect to work more hours because the alternative is unpleasant. To presume that if they didn’t work so much, they would have loads of great friendships and a happy home is quite a leap.

There is also a question of peer group activity. Is overtime common among the peer group? If so, it might not have any anti-social effect. In other words, all young lawyers and investment bankers on the fast track at top Manhattan firms work crazy hours. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have any friends to be with anyway, as their friends are all working and they live alone in Manhattan apartments, not with any family anyway. This seems likely to produce a very different outcome than one individual atypically for his social set working outrageous hours.

Another issue is where is this extra work being done? If one has to work in the office isolated from friends and family, that is one issue, but what if one does lots of hours on the laptop, iPad, Blackberry and via Skype, and you can do it from the beach house with your family around? Doesn’t that make a difference?

Then there is the question of financial reward. The studies were done on non-US groups, so different laws apply but it is unclear what the financial reward was for the overtime. When Mrs. Pundit worked for the government, it didn’t pay overtime, and although she received “comp time,” the demands of her very responsible position precluded her from taking advantage of much of this time. So, in effect, she worked overtime for free. That might be depressing, but when the Pundit worked at Hunts Point, there were some holidays we paid people triple time to work, and they were mostly pretty happy to get those hours.

Finally there is the question of job fulfillment. We’ve always been blessed with work we enjoyed. Working for the family business, we showed up lots of Saturdays to send telexes around the world and make export sales or import deals. When one came back and turned into a multi-million-dollar deal, we weren’t depressed, we were pumped. 

Now if we work all weekend and write a piece for The Wall Street Journal or invent a new product such as or The New York Produce Show and Conference too, we feel not depressed but on top of the world!

The idea of measuring hours worked and depression without looking at all these things gives off more smoke than light.  

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