Work is not really health. According to a study published by the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization, working more than 55 hours a week would increase the risk of death from heart disease and stroke.
This first global analysis of the loss of life and health damage associated with long working hours is published as the Covid-19 pandemic accelerates developments that may reinforce the tendency to work longer hours.
“A serious health hazard”
The study, published in the journal Environment International, however, does not focus on the pandemic, but on previous years. The authors synthesized data from dozens of studies involving hundreds of thousands of participants.
“Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard“said Dr Maria Neira, Director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at WHO.
A 35% increase in stroke risk
“It is time for everyone – governments, employers and workers alike – to finally admit that long working hours can lead to premature death.“, she added.
The study concludes that working 55 hours or more per week is associated with an estimated 35% increase in the risk of stroke and 17% in the risk of dying from ischemic heart disease compared to schedules of 35 to 40 hours of work per week.
WHO and ILO estimate that in 2016, 398,000 people died from stroke and 347,000 from heart disease after working at least 55 hours per week.
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First risk factor for occupational disease
Between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths due to heart disease linked to long working hours increased by 42%, a figure that stands at 19% for strokes.
Most of the recorded deaths were among people aged 60 to 79, who had worked 55 or more hours per week when they were between 45 and 74 years old.
In summary, says the WHO, “now that around a third of the total estimated work-related disease burden is known to be attributable to long working hours, this makes it the number one risk factor for occupational disease“.
“We therefore found no gender differences in the effect of long working hours on the incidence of cardiovascular disease.“, said Frank Pega, expert at the WHO, in a press conference.
However, the burden of disease is particularly high among men (72% of deaths concern them) because they represent a large proportion of workers worldwide.
It is also higher among people living in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia regions, where, Pega explained, there are more informal sector workers who may be forced to work for long days.
More work during lockdowns
The WHO is all the more worried about this phenomenon as the number of people working long hours is increasing. It currently represents 9% of the total world population.
The pandemic should do little to reverse the trend. On the contrary.
“Telecommuting has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the lines between home and work. In addition, many companies have been forced to reduce or stop their operations to save money and the people they continue to employ end up with longer working hours.“, said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO.
A more difficult disconnection
But, he warned, “no job is worth taking the risk of stroke or heart disease. Governments, employers and workers must work together to agree on limits to protect workers’ health“.
Citing a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 15 countries, Mr. Pega said that “the number of working hours increased by around 10% during confinement“.
Teleworking, combined with a digitalization of work processes, makes it more difficult to disconnect workers, he said, recommending to organize “rest periods“.
The pandemic has also increased job insecurity, which, in times of crisis, tends to push those who have kept theirs to work more to show that they are competitive, noted the expert.