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Health impact of working too long work hours shocks in new WHO report

working too hard is killing you

Stock image, credit Mike Parera, via Unsplash.com

Working too hard is killing you: literally.

Long working hours are killing 745,000 people a year, up 29% in 16 years, according to a new study by the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization published in Environment International today.  

WHO and ILO estimate 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 — a work-related disease burden that is particularly significant in men, the middle-aged, and those in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions, their research found.

See also: The WHO Academy: From sexual health to hackathons, the pressure is on to deliver.

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

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 two said. . This shifts thinking towards a relatively new and more psychosocial occupational risk factor to human health.

If working too hard is killing you, a webinar is not the answer.

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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 35-40 hours a week.

Further, 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.

Jonathan Richards, CEO of tech HR company Breathe noted: “Overworking is more obviously linked to cases of occupational burnout, but the latest research conducted by the World Health Organisation proves [a] sobering reality… What’s more, our recent research revealed 68% of SME business leaders say they have witnessed an increase in mental health issues reported since the pandemic began, a worrying sign.

Logic model of the possible causal relationship between exposure to long working hours and ischaemic heart disease. Credit: WHO & ILO

“It’s critical that employers take steps to support staff in maintaining a healthy worklife balance and that systemic burnout problems are urgently addressed.

“With figures like these illustrating the stark reality of what overworking does to a person over time, accounts during the pandemic of increased workloads suggest employers have a task on their hands to protect their workforce from harm in the long term. Observing and respecting mental health best practice is a great place to start.”

Read this: IWM CIO Ian Crawford on exploding film canisters, archiving PBs of data, and Peter Jackson.

The new analysis comes as the COVID-19 pandemic shines a spotlight on managing working hours; the pandemic is accelerating developments that could feed the trend towards increased working time: “The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work,“ said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

“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.”

The report was based on 2,300 surveys from 154 countries with data on number of hours on average or actually worked per week — the data almost exclusively collected by countries through their national statistical offices. WHO and ILO then conducted two systematic reviews and meta-analyses, supported by a large number of individual experts.

Working too hard is killing you, the report says: but what’s the actual evidence? In a nutshell, that working too long hours can cause mortality and morbidity from heart disease and stroke through two main “pathways”, the WHO notes: “The first is through physiological responses to psychosocial stress: working long hours continually activates the autonomic nervous system, immune system and, in turn, associated stress responses, with excessive release of stress hormones (e.g. adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol). This triggers reactions in the cardiovascular system (e.g., those that results in low heart rate variability and/or sustained high blood pressure) and lesions that cause a change in tissue (e.g., leading to the formation of fatty deposits in the arteries in coronary vessels).

“The second pathway is through health-harming behavioural responses to stress, which include tobacco use, alcohol use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and, in turn, impaired sleep and poor recovery, all established risk factors for ischemic heart disease and stroke.”

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