Long working hours could kill!

Long working hours could kill!

Long working hours led to 745 000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29% increase since 2000, according to the latest estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO). This situation is being exacerbated by the current pandemic.

I was shocked when I read these findings mid-May, which were published in Environment International – a multi-disciplinary, open access journal publishing high quality and novel information within the broad field of environmental health sciences.

Two systematic reviews and meta-analyses of the latest evidence were conducted for this study. Data was synthesised from 37 studies on ischemic heart disease, covering more than 768 000 participants, and 22 studies on stroke (more than 839 000 participants). The study covered global, regional and national levels, and was based on data from more than 2 300 surveys collected in 154 countries from 1970 to 2018.

In this first global analysis of the loss of life and health associated with working long hours, WHO and ILO estimate that, in 2016, 398 000 people died from a stroke and 347 000 from heart disease as a result of having worked at least 55 hours a week. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease, as a result of working long hours, increased by 42% and from stroke by 19%.

This work-related disease burden is particularly significant in men (72% of deaths occurred among males), people living in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions, and middle-aged or older workers. Most of the deaths recorded were among people aged 60 to 79 years, who had worked for 55 hours or more per week between the ages of 45 and 74 years.

The study further 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 to 40 hours a week.

This new analysis comes as the Covid-19 pandemic shines a spotlight on managing working hours and the pandemic is accelerating developments that could feed the trend towards increased working time. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, explains:
“The Covid-19 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.”

The WHO and IOL suggest that governments, employers and workers can take the following actions to protect workers’ health:
Governments can introduce, implement and enforce laws, regulations and policies that ban mandatory overtime and ensure maximum limits on working time;
Collective bargaining agreements between employers and workers’ associations can arrange working time to be more flexible, while at the same time agreeing on a maximum number of working hours; and
Employees could share working hours to ensure that the numbers of hours worked do not climb above 55 or more per week.

Dr Maria Neira, director of the department of environment, climate change and health at the WHO, sums it up succinctly: “Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard. It’s time that we all (governments, employers and employees) wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death.”

Published by

Jaco de Klerk

JACO DE KLERK is editor of SHEQ MANAGEMENT and assistant editor of its sister publication FOCUS on Transport and Logistics. It’s nearly a decade later, and he is still as passionate about all things SHEQ-related since his first column, Sound Off, which he wrote for this magazine as well.
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