Chronic disease prevention and working-time regimes

12 Oct 2016
Sarah Clarke

Chronic disease prevention and working-time regimes

International Breakfast Seminar with Professor Jane Dixon

In October 2016, we welcomed Professor Jane Dixon for one of our International Breakfast Seminars at our office in London.

Jane reported on the preliminary findings from an Australian project that has been examining the interplay of working-time arrangements and the ways of living that prevent chronic (non-communicable) disease.

The ‘Work, Time and Health’ project concerns two significant trends:

    1. the explosion of chronic diseases internationally and,
    2. the transition to deregulation of working-hour regimes, including flexible work arrangements.

She highlighted two studies from the project. The first study interviewed 55 workers about working-time issues and their health behaviours. The workers revealed that:

  • Physical activity is often optional
    • And is traded for working time or ‘me time’
    • Physical activity purely for pleasure is uncommon
    • It is prioritised where there is a health issue (e.g. diabetes) or a performance-related need (e.g. staying fit for the job)
    • Regular exercisers are generally those with predictable working hours
  • Eating meals varies
    • Dinner is an opportunity for social connection and longer meals
    • Lunch hours tend not to exist
    • Breakfast is often eaten on the move
    • There is a risky and increased dependence on convenience foods
  • Sleep is poor and less important
    • Most of the workers interviewed often have disrupted and inadequate sleep
    • Restorative sleep was readily traded for restorative awake time (e.g., ‘me time’ or time with family)

The second study interviewing 12 workers addressed whether flexible work encourages flexible lives, and if there are health consequences of living flexibly.

Rhythms and rituals (e.g. feeding children at a specific time) are very important: what happens in people’s lives beyond the workplace cannot be ignored.

It also seems that work routines support health practice routines only if the health practices can be fitted into rigid time slots, if rosters are predictable, and job tenure is felt to be secure.

The conclusion is that we need a conversation about what it means if all work were made flexible and routines and rhythms were lost. Evidence suggests that this would make it very hard to build health promotion into our lives.


Jane is senior fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University and a visiting research fellow at the International Institute for Global Health, United Nations University. Through 2016 into 2017, Jane is Leverhulme Trust Visiting Professor based at the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London.

Her research takes place at the intersection of cultural sociology and public health, and focuses on transformations within national food systems with special interests in consumer power, commodity chains, food retail and the nutritionalisation of the food system.


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