Long working hours contributed to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, according to estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO). The global deaths represent a 29% increase since 2000.
The joint research, published in Environment International on Monday (17 May), is the first global analysis to examine the burdens of ischemic heart disease and stroke attributable to exposure to long hours of work.
Drawing on data from 194 countries, the WHO and ILO estimated that, the number of deaths from heart disease increased by 42% between 2000 and 2016 as a result of working at least 55 hours a week. For strokes, the number of deaths rose by 19%.
The researchers noted that long work hours has become the risk factor with the largest occupational disease burden, accounting for a third of the total estimated work-related burden of disease.
Significantly, the study found that employees who work 55 or more hours per week are at an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to employees who work 35-40 hours a week.
'Working hours should be monitored and properly managed, so that employers can help workers achieve a healthy work-life balance'
The research, which was undertaken before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, reveals that an increasing number of people are working long hours. If this trend is left unchecked, it means even more employees will be put at risk of work-related disability and early death.
The WHO and ILO have raised concerns that the pandemic has led to a significant increase in employees working remotely from home, which has been accompanied by a blurring of the boundaries between the home and work environment, leading many to work longer days.
'The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work,' Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, told IOSH magazine. '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,' he added.
The joint study proposes a number of actions that governments, employers and workers can consider to protect workers’ health.
To start with, the researchers suggest that governments could introduce, implement and enforce laws, regulations and policies that ban mandatory overtime and ensure maximum limits on working time.
They also recommend that bipartite or collective bargaining agreements between employers and workers’ associations provide more flexible working time arrangements and agree on a maximum number of work hours.
The researchers also suggest that employees could share the hours they work so that the number of hours worked do not rise above 55 or more a week.
'Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard,' warned Dr Maria Neira, director of environment, climate change and health at the WHO. 'It’s time that we all, governments, employers, and employees, wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death.'
Speaking to People Management this week, Duncan Spencer, head of advice and practice at IOSH, advocated for a code of practice to prevent unsafe working. He told the publication that this approach would be ‘more persuasive than guidance’ in ensuring good OSH practice.
He added that health assessment entitlements offered to night-shift workers should be offered to all employees who work consistently long hours, backed up with occupational health advice.
‘Working hours should be monitored and properly managed, so that employers can help workers achieve a healthy work-life balance,’ he said.
On the same day the WHO/ILO report came out, the European Parliament published a study that analysed the impact of increased remote telework and digital work on workers and society.
Drawing on the results of Eurofound’s Living, Working and COVID-19 survey, which was conducted among EU-27 respondents in April 2020, the researchers found the share of employees who started home working was 36.5% in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak, compared to only 15.8% who declared working from home at least several times a week pre-pandemic.
As businesses return to ‘normal’, the researchers anticipate an increased take-up in hybrid work patterns where employees split their working week between the business premises and either home or from co-working spaces.
Home-based telework is linked with a range of employee benefits, notably greater time and place flexibility, enhanced job autonomy, improved work-life balance and reduced commuting time.
‘The research ... also pointed to trends such as increased prolonged sitting and intensification of work, which the pandemic has amplified'
However, the study also identified two significant developments that tap into the WHO/ILO report – greater work intensity and longer working hours.
The researchers noted that ‘home teleworkers appear to struggle with managing the blurred boundaries between work and home, including the incursion of work into personal/family life and coping with the extension of working hours’.
They also suggested that long working hours, together with a lack of sufficient space for work and of ergonomically fit equipment and furniture at home, may also increase the physical health risks.
Employers were found to be increasing their use of online monitoring and surveillance methods, which the study suggested could be adding to employees’ anxiety and stress levels.
The researchers highlighted a growing concern with regard to the invasion of remote workers’ privacy following increased surveillance and monitoring and with respect to employees’ right to disconnect.
They emphasised the critical role played by managers to effectively engage, motivate and oversee teleworkers.
The researchers concluded that a major shift in organisational culture was needed so that the focus shifted from managing attendance and inputs to managing employees by results as well as fostering trust-based relationships.
‘This new data adds to the already strong evidence showing the importance of psychosocial risk factors in the development of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs),’ says William Cockburn, head of the prevention and research unit at the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.
‘At EU-OSHA we are running a Europe-wide campaign on MSDs in which we stress the importance of managing psychosocial and organisational, as well as ergonomic factors.
‘The research we carried out over three years preparing for this campaign also pointed to trends such as increased prolonged sitting and intensification of work, which the pandemic has amplified. However, there are plenty of examples of useful tools and guidance, such as the IOSH guide on remote working, and we are busy promoting these through our campaign.’