Long working hours are leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths per year, according to a new study by the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization.
Working more than 55 hours a week in a paid job resulted in 745,000 deaths in 2016, the study estimated, up from 590,000 in 2000. About 398,000 of the deaths in 2016 were because of stroke and 347,000 because of heart disease. Both physiological stress responses and changes in behavior (such as an unhealthy diet, poor sleep and reduced physical activity) are “conceivable” reasons that long hours have a negative impact on health, the authors suggest.
Other takeaways from the study:
• Working more than 55 hours per week is dangerous. It is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of stroke and 17% higher risk of heart disease compared with working 35-40 hours per week.
• About 9% of the global population works long hours. In 2016, an estimated 488 million people worked more than 55 hours per week. Though the study did not examine data after 2016, “past experience has shown that working hours increased after previous economic recessions; such increases may also be associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” the authors wrote.
• Long hours are more dangerous than other occupational hazards. In all three years that the study examined (2000, 2010 and 2016), working long hours led to more disease than any other occupational risk factor, including exposure to carcinogens and the nonuse of seat belts at work. And the health toll of overwork worsened over time: From 2000 to 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease because of working long hours increased 42%, and from stroke 19%.
Dr. Maria Neira, a director at the WHO, put the conclusion bluntly: “It’s time that we all, governments, employers and employees wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death.”