Long hours and overwork are likely to be causing hundreds of thousands of deaths a year around the globe, according to a new study from the World Health Organization (WHO) – and the problem is getting worse.
In 2016, researchers estimate that around 745,000 people died worldwide from strokes and ischemic heart disease linked to working more than 55 hours a week, an increase of 29 percent over the same figure from 2000.
Compared to working 35-40 hours a week, working 55 hours a week or more increases the risk of a stroke by 35 percent, and the risk of dying from ischemic heart disease by 17 percent, the researchers conclude.
"Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard," says Maria Neira, the Director of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health at WHO. "It's time that we all, governments, employers, and employees wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death."
WHO joined with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to dig through dozens of studies investigating ischemic heart disease and strokes, looking at data covering 194 different countries. While the stats don't show a definite causal association, they do provide "sufficient evidence for harmfulness" using the WHO's criteria.
Work-related disease and mortality was particularly prevalent in men, in people aged 60-74 years, and in people living in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions, the data showed. Around 8.9 percent of the global population worked for an average of 55 hours a week or more in 2016 – some 488 million people in total.
The data in this study only goes up to 2016, but it's unlikely that the situation has improved since then. The rise of the gig economy and the switch to home working because of the spread of coronavirus mean that many of us are 'on the clock' for more hours than ever before.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work," says WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "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."
While the link between working too many hours and poor health is no surprise, and has been extensively studied before, the new research goes to another level in terms of worldwide analysis and the sheer amount of data that's been factored in.
The obvious fix if you find yourself overworked is to work less – and spend more time with the family or on your hobbies. For many people worldwide, that's not necessarily an economic choice they can make though.
With that in mind, the WHO is encouraging governments and employers to take heed of the warnings in this study – establishing rules around time limits and flexible working hours, and enabling job sharing between workers could all help this disease burden come down.
"No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease," says Tedros. "Governments, employers, and workers need to work together to agree on limits to protect the health of workers."
The research has been published in Environment International.