Working long hours without taking time off may be literally killing you. A new study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that people who work more than 55 hours/week face a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease compared to those that work 40 hours/week or less. Across the world, 745,000 deaths were attributed to stroke and heart disease in 2016 as a direct consequence of overwork.
“No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement to the press.
More than 488 million people worldwide work more than 55 hours a week, and the risks are piling up. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths associated with laboring for long hours increased dramatically. During this timeframe, there were 42% more deaths from heart disease and 19% more deaths from strokes in overworked individuals, the authors reported in the journal Environment International.
To reach these findings, the researchers pooled data from more than 2,300 surveys on working hours that were conducted in 154 countries from the 1970s up to 2018.
Although the study didn’t include data for the ominous 2020, WHO officials believe that the pandemic has led to important paradigm shifts in the workforce, some of which may contribute to more overwork. For instance, researchers have previously identified the gig economy (temporary, or freelance jobs, often involving connecting with clients or customers through an online platform like Uber) and telework (work from home) as contributing factors to long hours on the job. According to evidence analyzed by the WHO, working hours increased by 10% during national lockdowns across the world.
Recessions, such as the one experienced last year due to the shuttering of business, are almost always followed by a rise in working hours, as people take up more work for the same pay in order to pay their bills. The highest health burdens are on the shoulders of men and workers who are middle-aged or older, the study found. People in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific region were the most overworked in the world, and consequently the most at risk, while those in Europe have the lowest exposure.
Working long hours leads to poor health outcomes for a number of reasons. Stress releases hormones that directly affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Also, people with little to no work-life balance are more likely to engage in self-harming behaviors, such as using alcohol and tobacco, and tend to not get the recommended 7 hours of sleep/night, don’t exercise, and have an unhealthy diet.
The study’s authors list a number of policies that governments may consider adopting in order to protect their population. One of them is working with employers to set a maximum number of working hours and add more flexibility in their scheduling.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.