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Does hard work shorten your life?

We know that staying fit and exercising regularly can help you to live longer, but when does hard work become too much? Does manual labor shorten lifespans, or are people who retire early more likely to die young? We look at the science behind how work impacts your longevity to bring you the facts on what we know about how work affects your lifespan.

Longevity by occupation

woman working in a welding shop

One of the best places to start looking for answers as to how work affects longevity is to look at lifespan by occupation. A 2021 study on Occupation-Based Life Expectancy found that people working in non-skilled general, technical and transport domains lived on average 3.5 years less than those in academic professions. Those working in the transport sector had the shortest life expectancy, and teachers had the longest.

An 1858 study from Massachusetts also looked at life expectancy by occupation. That study concluded that bank officers had the longest life expectancy, and teachers one of the shortest.

OCCUPATION

LIFE EXPECTANCY (years)

Bank officers

68-76

Judges and justices

65

Clergymen, coopers, gentlemen, public officers, shipwrights

55-60

Blacksmiths, butchers, calico printers, lawyers, hatters, merchants, physicians, ropemakers

50-55

Carpenters, masons, traders

45-50

Bankers, editors, jewelers, manufacturers, mechanics, painters, shoemakers, tailors

40-45

Machinists, musicians, printers

35-40

Clerks, operatives, teachers

30-35


What we can conclude from these two very different results is that occupation itself is probably irrelevant to longevity. Teaching didn’t change so much in the last 150 years that it more than doubled a teacher’s life expectancy. Instead what matters is what that occupation signifies about the rest of a person’s life.

Longevity by socioeconomic status

wealthy woman with shopping bags

One of the key things our occupation says about us is our socioeconomic status. Income inequality in America is growing, with the top 10% earning more than nine times as much as the remaining 90%. That has led to a big difference in life expectancy based on occupation and income.

People who work low-income jobs have limited access to healthcare and nutritious foods, for example. That means they’re less able to eat the varied, balanced diet our bodies need to function properly. And when things go wrong, low-income people are less able to afford to take time off work to visit the doctor. That leads to higher late-stage diagnoses in low-income individuals, and that reduces the chances of successful recovery.

A study on The Association Between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, 2001–2014, found that higher income is always associated with longer life expectancy. Men in the top 1% lived on average 14.6 years longer than men in the bottom 1%. The richest women lived an extra decade longer than the poorest.

However longevity is not as simple as drawing a straight line from income to life expectancy. The researchers found that longevity increased on a curve, with higher incomes producing smaller and smaller gains in life expectancy. Increasing an income of $14,000 to $20,0000 increased life expectancy by about 0.8 years — the same as increasing a $161,000 income to $224,000. This held true even for the very highest income earners. Somebody earning $224,000 would have to increase their income to $1.95 million to be statistically likely to live an extra 0.8 years.

Why is it so hard to increase life expectancy by income the higher you go? Because of limitations in healthcare. People in the lowest income brackets struggle to access any healthcare. However a person only has to afford to attend preventative screenings and see a doctor if they notice troubling symptoms in order to increase their life expectancy. It doesn’t matter if they earn $50,000 or $2 million, there is very little difference in the medical care they will receive on an ordinary basis.

The effects of manual labor on longevity

construction worker manual laborer

Now we know that the main factors that affect longevity are diet and access to healthcare, and occupation/income is an indicator of socioeconomic status. But that doesn’t mean certain occupations don’t also have a physical effect on the body that affects longevity.

Firstly, some occupations are more dangerous than others, and most of these are manual jobs. In 2019, 5,333 Americans died as a result of injuries in the workplace. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, the most dangerous job in America is being a truck driver. Over 1400 truck drivers died in 2019, mostly in road traffic accidents.

OCCUPATION

TOTAL WORKPLACE DEATHS IN 2019

LEADING CAUSE OF DEATH

Truck driver

1481

Transportation incidents

Construction workers

1066

Falls, slips, trips

Installation, maintenance, repair workers

438

Contact with objects and equipment

Management

380

Transportation incidents

Building and ground maintenance

333

Transportation incidents


These statistics are based on the total number of fatalities, not on the total likelihood of death. For example if there are a million managers working in the U.S. and ten die in car accidents during work hours, that’s a 1 in 10,000 chance of dying on the job. If there are 500 deep sea fishermen and 50 of them are lost overboard, that’s a 1/10 chance of dying on the job.

A study by AdvisorSmith looked at occupations with over 50,000 workers to find the most dangerous jobs in America. They discovered that loggers were most at risk, with 111 deaths per 100,000 workers.

OCCUPATION

DEATHS PER 100,000 (2018)

LEADING CAUSE OF DEATH

Logging workers

111

Contact with objects and equipment

Aircraft pilots and flight engineers

53

Transportation incidents

Oil, gas, and mining operators

46

Contact with objects and equipment

Roofers

41

Falls, slips, trips

Garbage collectors

34

Transportation incidents


So some jobs are inherently more dangerous than others, the majority of which are blue-collar occupations. The chances of dying in a workplace accident are low no matter what job you do, but these odds do have an impact on life expectancy on a national level. If lots of people from the same socioeconomic background are at an increased risk of premature death, that shows in national statistics.

But what about the workers who don’t die on the job? Do they have the same longevity as everyone else? When it comes to manual work, the answer appears to be No.

Exercise is good for us, and manual laborers get plenty of that. But too much strenuous exercise may have a negative effect on health. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that men who worked physically demanding jobs were 18% more likely to die prematurely.

The researchers believe the key factor distinguishing good exercise from bad is downtime. When we exercise to keep fit, we are active for a set amount of time and then take a break to recover. This isn’t always possible with physically demanding jobs, and working too hard for too long can cause overexertion. This leads to elevated heart rates and blood pressure for hours at a time, and that puts increased stress on the cardiovascular system.

The effects of stress on longevity

man at work looking stressed

Stress is also bad for your heart. When we’re stressed, we release a flood of fight-or-flight hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones increase our blood pressure and heart rate. That’s great if we’re stressed because we sense a predator nearby and need to run away, but long-term stress is harmful. As well as the cardiovascular damage that stress hormones do, stress can impair our immune systems and disrupt sleep. One report suggested that stress contributes to 120,000 premature deaths every year. 

When it comes to the workplace, there are many different potential sources of stress to keep us up at night. Job security, length of working hours, work-life conflicts, and high-demand or low-control positions can all cause stress. One study on the effect of Exposure to Harmful Workplace Practices on longevity found that college-educated workers experienced a 5-10% decrease in life expectancy if they worked in a high-stress environment. For workers without a college degree, the decrease was even higher, 12-19%.

The effects of working hours on longevity

woman works late in darkened office

The hours you work can also impact your longevity. The recommended working week is 40 hours, but working eight extra hours each week can reduce your life expectancy by an average of more than nine years, according to data from the World Health Organization. And for every hour over 48 per week spent working, you lose another 2.25 years from your life expectancy.

As this is a global study, there are a host of other factors affecting these results. For instance many of the countries with the highest number of working hours are some of the most deprived. That means poor diets, weak access to medical care, and lack of other essential resources. The five countries with the lowest life expectancy all score low on the Human Development Index, and two are in the bottom ten.

Nonetheless, working time clearly has a significant impact. Australia, for example, has the fourth-longest life expectancy, at 82.9 years. Yet Australians have low vaccination uptake compared with similar countries, comparatively high BMIs, eat three times more meat than the global average, and have extremely high rates of alcohol consumption. Almost 85% of Australians like a drink, and consume an average of 10.6 liters of pure alcohol each per year. Where Australians do perform better than their global peers is in their work life — the average person works 38 hours each week, less than the WHO benchmark.

The positive impact of work on life expectancy

two women relax at work

Now we know that many occupations have a negative effect on our health. Jobs that are low income, high stress, involve manual labor, or long hours, all reduce our life expectancy. But that doesn’t mean all work is bad for us. Work can make us happy, give us purpose, and keep us active well into old age.

A long-term study of just over 1500 gifted children, that lasted from the 1920s until their deaths, discovered that those who worked hard and took on more responsibility in their working lives lived longest. The study concluded that the “conscientious, hard-working personality trait” reduced the chances of premature death by 20-30%.

One key reason why working for longer improves longevity could be down to social connections made at work. Married men live longer than men who have never married, divorced, or been widowed. Married women don’t experience the same longevity boost, leading researchers to consider if what really extends lifespans isn’t being married, but having a social circle.

Studies regularly show that women have more friends than men, and female friendships tend to be closer and more intimate. Social isolation after retirement is a serious problem, and has serious health risks. Loneliness increases the risk of premature death from all causes at about the same rate as smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. Without work, single men may find they’ve lost their support system and quickly become isolated, increasing their risk of dying prematurely.

A final way work can affect longevity is through happiness. This is a hard metric to quantify, but some researchers have tried. When controlling for other factors such as age, gender, and socioeconomic status, a study on Happiness and Life Expectancy found that people who worked in “intermediate” positions were the happiest for the longest. These positions included administrators, subordinates, and assistants.

The results showed that men in intermediate jobs lived on average three years longer than those in managerial positions, and seven years longer than those in routine positions such as unskilled workers. Intermediate women lived an average of eight years longer than those in routine jobs, but 3-4 years less than those in managerial positions, even though managerial women reported lower happiness levels. The researchers suggest this discrepancy could be a result of an unequal division of labor affecting women’s work/home life.

What this study shows is that being happy at work is linked to increased longevity, but especially in positions that are less stressful or physically demanding. Finding a healthy balance between work and social commitments increases happiness and helps you live a longer life.

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