Working 55+ hours a week could be (very) bad for your health

·3-min read
Working 55 hours or more per week could be particularly bad for health, according to the latest estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Working long hours could be the cause of hundreds of thousands of premature deaths worldwide, especially among men. What's more, working 55 hours or more per week may even increase mortality linked to heart disease and stroke. And this could be made worse by the covid-19 pandemic, which has turned working lives upside down while giving rise to new habits.

No less than 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease linked to long working hours were recorded worldwide in 2016, according to the latest report* from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), published in the journal, Environment International . This represents a 29% increase since 2000, highlighting the important need for "actions to protect workers' health."

Men are particularly affected

In greater detail, the WHO and ILO estimate that, in 2016, 398,000 people died from stroke and 347,000 people died of heart disease as a result of having worked at least 55 hours a week. In the space of just 16 years, the number of deaths from heart disease due to working long hours increased by 42%, and from stroke by 19%.

According to the findings, men are more greatly affected than women, accounting for almost three quarters of deaths (72%). And, looking at different world regions, this work-related disease burden is particularly significant in people living in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions. Similarly, middle-aged and older workers are more affected than younger workers. "Most of the deaths recorded were among people dying aged 60-79 years, who had worked for 55 hours or more per week between the ages of 45 and 74 years," states the report.

Another important finding is that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of death from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week. This is a particularly significant observation at a time when the number of people working long hours worldwide is increasing. The figure currently stands at 9% of the global population.

Could covid make matters worse?

It now remains to be seen whether the pandemic could aggravate the situation in the coming years, notably due to the widespread switch to remote working which tends to increase the number of hours people work. "The covid-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work," said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. "Teleworking has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work. In addition, many businesses have been forced to scale back or shut down operations to save money, and people who are still on the payroll end up working longer hours."

Calling on governments and employers to put in place measures to protect the health of the global population, the WHO Director-General concludes: "No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease. Governments, employers and workers need to work together to agree on limits to protect the health of workers."

*Two systematic reviews and meta-analyses of the latest evidence were conducted for this study. Data from 37 studies on ischemic heart disease covering more than 768,000 participants and 22 studies on stroke covering more than 839,000 participants were synthesized. The study covered global, regional and national levels, and was based on data from more than 2,300 surveys collected in 154 countries from 1970-2018

Christelle Pellissier