Long working hours led to 745 000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29% increase since 2000, according to the latest estimates by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) published in Environment International on 17 May.
In the study, researchers estimate that, in 2016, 398 000 people died from a 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%.
This work-related disease burden is particularly significant in men (72% of deaths occurred among males), people living in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions, and middle-aged or older workers.
“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”, the study states. “This shifts thinking towards a relatively new and more psychosocial occupational risk factor to human health.”
The study concludes 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 to 40 hours a week. In South Africa, for instance, the statutory limitation of 45 hours per week means that the employee may not work more than 45 hours per week normal time.
The study also found 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.
The study comes after the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the way in which many companies work with employees mostly working form home in most instances.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work,“ said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the WHO. “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.”
Meanwhile, Dr Maria Neira, the director of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, at the WHO said that working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard.
“It’s time that we all, governments, employers, and employees wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death”.
Governments, employers and workers can take the following actions to protect workers’ health, according to the WHO and ILO: