BEVERLY HILLS, May 17, (THEWILL) – Long working hours are killing hundreds of thousands of people around the world every year, according to estimates from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
In joint research by the global public health and employment bodies, the first global study of the loss of life associated with longer working hours, estimated 745,000 people died from stroke and heart disease associated with long working hours in 2016. That was an increase of nearly 30% from 2000.
“Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard. What we want to do with this information is promote more action, more protection of workers”, said Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health.
The study, published in the Environment International journal Monday, was a first global analysis of the loss of life and health associated with working long hours.
The WHO and 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 with 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 Monday.
“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.
“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 organization added.
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.
Although the study did not cover the period of the coronavirus 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, the WHO said, adding, “This trend puts even more people at risk of work-related disability and early death.”
The pandemic has also placed more emphasis on working hours, with the WHO warning that the crisis 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.
WHO staff, including its chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, say they have been working long hours during the pandemic and Neira said the U.N. agency would seek to improve its policy in light of the study.
Capping hours would be beneficial for employers since that has been shown to increase worker productivity. It’s really a smart choice not to increase long working hours in an economic crisis”, WHO technical officer Frank Pega said.
The 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.