The biggest reason of all - it's a killer, say WHO and ILO, pointing out that long working hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29% increase since 2000.

"Just 30 more minutes and I'll wrap up."

"I must get this done today no matter what."

Raise your hands (virtually, as we're now used to) if this has happened to you - you're working on a pressing project and you want to make progress so badly, you don't realise the time passing. Before we know it, it's dark outside and you've just worked a 12-hour day. This continues day by day, and has almost become a typical work week for you.

We know this is bad, but exactly how bad is it? According to a recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), published in Environment International, it's a killer. 

The study, published on Monday (17 May), found that long working hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29% increase since 2000. 

In what is a first global analysis of the loss of life and health associated with working long hours, WHO and ILO estimated that, in 2016, 398,000 people died from stroke and 347,000 from heart disease as a result of having worked at least 55 hours a week. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease due to working long hours increased by 42%, and from stroke by 19%.

More importantly, the study highlighted that this work-related disease burden is particularly significant in men (72% of deaths occurred among males), people living in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia regions, and middle-aged or older workers. Most of the deaths recorded were among people aged 60-79 years, who had worked for 55 hours or more per week when they were between the ages of 45 and 74 years.

With working long hours now known to be responsible for about one-third of the total estimated work-related burden of disease, it is established as the risk factor with the largest occupational disease burden. This shifts thinking towards a relatively new and more psychosocial occupational risk factor to human health.

The study, overall, concluded 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 dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week.

9% of the total population globally is working long hours

Apart from the above, the study also noted that the number of people working long hours is increasing, and currently stands at 9% of the total population globally. This trend puts even more people at risk of work-related disability and early death, it stated.

Commenting on a reason behind this, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said: "The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work. 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."

"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."
- Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General

“Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard,” added Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, at the World Health Organization. “It’s time that we all, governments, employers, and employees wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death”.

The report shared key actions that governments, employers and workers can take to protect their workers’ health:

  • Governments can introduce, implement and enforce laws, regulations and policies that ban mandatory overtime and ensure maximum limits on working time;
  • Bipartite or collective bargaining agreements between employers and workers’ associations can arrange working time to be more flexible, while at the same time agreeing on a maximum number of working hours;
  • Employees could share working hours to ensure that number of hours worked do not climb above 55 or more per week.

Photo / 123RF

Human Resources Online is on Telegram! Follow us @humanresourcesonline or click here for all the latest weekly HR and manpower news from around the region.