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Long Working Hours Killed Nearly 1 Million People in a Year, WHO Study Reveals

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Key Takeaways

  • Over the course of 2016, 488 million people were exposed to long working hours of more than 55 hours per week.
  • This was associated with 745,194 attributable deaths and 23.3 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) from ischemic heart disease and stroke, with 4.9% of all deaths and 6.9% of all DALYs stemming from longer working hours.
  • Risks were higher among the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions, as well as with men and older people.

Work-life balance is often encouraged, but it can be hard to achieve. Systematic reviews from the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO) found higher risks of ischemic heart disease and stroke among those working more than 55 hours weekly, as compared to working the standard 35–40 hours weekly.

As the pandemic continues, many have had to juggle work responsibilities at home, often alongside online schooling for their children, plus eldercare. With what may feel like an overwhelming reality of late, this research may validate strong feelings regarding the challenges of longer work hours.

The review showed higher risks for deaths and DALYs from ischemic heart disease and strokes among Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions, as well as men and older people. This research highlights the need for greater international labor protections to prevent such exploitation of workers, as well as smaller scale assessments of our own work-life balance, or lack thereof.

Delving into Global Health Research

The WHO and ILO conducted systematic reviews of global health data for 2016 and found that 745,194 deaths and 23.3 million DALYs from ischemic heart disease and stroke were from exposure to long working hours.

This 2016 data demonstrated that regional exposure prevalence was largest for South-East Asia, at a rate of 11.7%, and lowest in Europe, with 3.5%, while the Western Pacific region had the largest increase since 2000.

While it is a limitation that findings were based on observational studies, for which causation cannot be certain, this research demonstrated that exposure to excess work hours every week increased the risk of death and poor health outcomes.

Long Work Hours Are Only One Factor

Founder and President of the American Preventive Health Organization, Dr. Sandra El Hajj, MSc, N-MD, DHSc, says, "The WHO analyzed data from 194 countries and found that those who spend more than 55 hours working on a weekly basis are more likely to die of ischemia and stroke, but the impact on health highly depends on the workplace as well."

Long work hours are only one factor that may be relevant, so El Hajj cautions that the quality of work may be influenced by a variety of factors, such as the culture of the workplace, the stressors of the job, etc.

El Hajj says, "While working long hours is not recommended for the long term, many employees also confront stress based on their personal relationships, family challenges, social issues, financial strain, etc."

Sandra El Hajj, MSc, N-MD, DHSc

While working long hours is not recommended for the long term, many employees also confront stress based on their personal relationships, family challenges, social issues, [and] financial strain.

— Sandra El Hajj, MSc, N-MD, DHSc

Longer Work Hours Reduce Productivity

Leadership Consultant and Clinical Director of Lucid Clinical Services, Dr. Crystal Shelton, DSW, LCSW-C, says, "Studies that date all the way back to 1977 suggest that not only are longer hours harmful but there is considerable evidence that longer hours actually reduce productivity."

Crystal Shelton, DSW, LCSW-C

I think it is interesting to consider what would actually drive a shift towards a model that is more economic and effective by reducing burnout, turnover, and improving productivity.

— Crystal Shelton, DSW, LCSW-C

Such findings should be enough to prompt change, but given how capitalism tends to operate—especially in the U.S.—it may be more effective to highlight how long work hours do not serve productivity.

Shelton says, "We are so stuck in the idea of the 40+ hour work week that even in the face of consistent, compelling evidence that it is non-optimal, we continue to remain firmly entrenched in the model. I think it is interesting to consider what would actually drive a shift towards a model that is more economic and effective by reducing burnout, turnover, and improving productivity."

What This Means For You

As this global research demonstrates, working more than 55 hours weekly can increase the risk of death and disability from ischemic heart disease and stroke. This research highlights the need for policy shifts to better regulate work in a way that can improve worker health and even improve productivity in the process.

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  1. Pega F, Náfrádi B, Momen NC, et al. Global, regional, and national burdens of ischemic heart disease and stroke attributable to exposure to long working hours for 194 countries, 2000–2016: A systematic analysis from the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-related Burden of Disease and InjuryEnviron Int. Published online May 17, 2021. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2021.106595