Long working hours have been associated with an increased risk of stroke and ischemic heart disease, leading to 745,000 deaths in 2016, a 29% increase since 2000, according to a global analysis conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) published in Environment International.

Linked to death and stroke

In 2016 alone, at least 398,000 people died from stroke, and 347,000 people died from heart disease due to working at least 55 hours a week, making working long hours the risk factor with the largest occupational disease burden, responsible for about one-third of the total estimated work-related burden of disease. The number of deaths due to heart disease caused by working long hours increased by 42% between 2000 and 2016, and deaths from stroke increased by 19%.

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The work-related disease burden affects mainly men, with 72% of deaths occurring among males. Moreover, it is more prevalent in middle-aged or older workers and those living in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia regions. Most deaths occurred among people who had worked for 55 hours or more per week between the ages of 45 and 74, with the majority of deaths recorded among those aged 60-79 years.

Longer hours and mortality rates

The study indicates that working for 55 or more hours per week is associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease compared to working for 35-40 hours per week. This finding calls for an increased awareness of psychosocial occupational risk factors to human health.

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Currently, 9% of the global population works long hours, and this number is increasing. The trend puts more people at risk of work-related disability and early death, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating the development of working long hours.

In response to the alarming results, governments, employers, and workers must work together to establish limits to protect workers’ health. The WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, emphasized that no job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease and urged governments, employers, and workers to take action to ban mandatory overtime, ensure maximum limits on working time, and arrange more flexible working hours while agreeing on a maximum number of working hours.

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Dr Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Environment, Climate Change, and Health at the WHO, reiterated the need for all parties to wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death and urged employees to share working hours to ensure that the number of hours worked does not climb above 55 or more per week.

In another study, fatigue which is often linked with long hours of work, is also known contributor in increased mortality in adults.

These studies shed some light on the adverse effects of long working hours, stress and depression on human health and calls for urgent action to prevent more work-related deaths and disability.