New data released by the World Health Organization confirms that long working hours are killing hundreds of thousands of people every year
It’s not exactly news to anyone that people around the globe are working longer hours than is healthy or sustainable, which leads to all kinds of mental and emotional health crises, from chronic stress, anxiety and depression, to plain old burnout. But it’s not just our mental states that are suffering from working at all hours of the day — new data released by the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that hundreds of thousands of deaths per year can be attributed to long working hours, which means a chronic lack of work-life balance is literally killing us.
The study, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Environment International, highlighted information analyzed by both the WHO and the International Labour Organization (ILO), the first agency founded by the United Nations in 1919. Both agencies looked at the link between working hours and loss of life on a global scale across 154 countries, finding that long working hours — i.e. working at least 55 hours per week — led to a staggering 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29 percent increase since 2000. In those 16 years alone, the number of deaths from heart disease due to working long hours increased by 42 percent, and from stroke by 19 percent.
Though the data points out that men are disproportionately affected (with 72 percent of the reported deaths being men), there are also significant links by region (with those in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia regions most impacted) and age. Most of the deaths recorded were among people dying between the ages of 60 and 79, who had worked at least 55 hours a week when they were between 45 and 74. It’s hard to think of a more depressing reality than someone in their mid- to late-seventies working more than 55 hours a week.
This new info should serve as a stark reminder that none of us is immune to potentially life-threatening work-related illness. The study found that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with a roughly 35 percent higher risk of suffering a stroke and a 17 percent higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease (heart problems caused by a narrowing of the arteries, therefore restricting oxygen flow), compared to working 35 to 40 hours a week.
As for how all that time spent in the office leads to potentially fatal health conditions, it’s a double whammy. Along with a lack of time and resources to practice healthy habits like getting enough sleep, eating nutritious foods, exercising, and caring for one’s emotional and physical health, chronic psychological stressors can trigger physiological responses, leading to physical illness like stroke and heart disease.
“Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard,” Dr. Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health said in a statement. “It’s time that we all, governments, employers, and employees wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death.”
And, of course, the global events of the past year haven’t helped matters. “The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work,“ said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General. “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.”
Dr. Adhanom summed it up best in a TL:DR, adding, “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.”
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