Long working hours are killing 745,000 people a year, research finds

By | May 17, 2021

The emergency services attend to a man who has suffered a stroke in Madrid, Spain.

Europa Press News | Europa Press | Getty Images

Long working hours are killing hundreds of thousands of people around the world every year, according to the findings of a study by the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization.

In joint research by the global public health and employment bodies, the WHO and ILO estimated there were 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, marking a 29% increase since 2000.

The study, published in the Environment International journal on Monday, was a first global analysis of the loss of life and health associated with working long hours.

WHO and the ILO estimated that 398,000 people died from stroke and 347,000 from heart disease in 2016 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%.

The study 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. In 2016, 488 million people worldwide were exposed to long working hours of more than 55 hours a week, the WHO and ILO estimated.

The “work-related disease burden” was found to be particularly significant in men (72% of deaths occurred among males), people living in the Western Pacific (in which the WHO includes China, South Korea, Australia and Japan among other countries) and Southeast Asia regions, and middle-aged or older workers, the WHO said on Monday.

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“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,” the organization added.

“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 WHO-ILO study included analysis of 37 studies on ischemic heart disease and 22 studies on stroke as well as data from more than 2,300 surveys collected in 154 countries from 1970-2018. 

Worrying trend

Although the study did not cover the period of the pandemic, the findings come at a time when the number of people working long hours is increasing, and currently stands at 9% of the total population globally, WHO said, adding: “This trend puts even more people at risk of work-related disability and early death.”

The coronavirus pandemic has also placed more emphasis on working hours with the WHO warning that the pandemic is accelerating developments that could feed the trend toward increased working time.

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that the 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,” he said.

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WHO recommended that governments “introduce, implement and enforce laws, regulations and policies that ban mandatory overtime and ensure maximum limits on working time” and suggested that employees could share working hours to ensure that numbers of hours worked do not climb above 55 or more per week.   

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