Working more than 55 hours a week is a health hazard that leads to stroke and heart disease — and the pandemic may accelerate this trend, says the World Health Organization

By Morgan Smith
May 19, 2021 03:48 PM
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For decades, psychologists have touted the benefits of maintaining a work-life balance — and now a new study from the World Health Organization (the WHO) finds that working long hours is killing hundreds of thousands of people each year. 

People who work more than 55 hours each week are at a 35% higher risk of having a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared to those who work the standard 35-40 hours each week, the study concluded.

The study, published Monday in the journal Environment International, estimated that overwork caused 745,000 deaths from stroke and heart disease in 2016, a 29% increase since 2000.

The link between overworking and cardiovascular disease is not entirely clear, but people who work long hours are more likely to experience high levels of stress, eat poorly, exercise less, and drink more alcohol — factors that can contribute to stroke or heart attack, according to Harvard Health

Researchers reviewed several studies on heart disease and stroke, as well as more than 2,300 surveys on working conditions from 154 countries conducted from the 1970s through 2018. 

Men have been hit particularly hard by this phenomenon, accounting for nearly 72% of work-related deaths, the study reported. People who had worked for 55 hours or more each week between the ages of 45 and 74 tended to die when they were between 60 and 79 years old. 

A map published with the WHO's study shows workers in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific were at the highest risk of developing an occupational disease. In the United States, less than 5% of the population works longer hours. Canada, Mexico and other countries in Central and South America also saw much lower rates of excessive work.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could accelerate this harmful trend, leaders at the WHO warned. 

"Teleworking has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work," Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the WHO, said in a press release. "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 … [but] no job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease."

Dr. Maria Neira, Director of the WHO's Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, called overworking 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," she said in a press release. 

The WHO suggested a number of ways government leaders and employers can protect workers' health, including laws that establish limits on working overtime and collective bargaining agreements between managers and employees that increase flexibility and transparency around working hours.