Working excessive hours increases risk of stroke and heart attack, WHO says

Research suggests nearly 750,000 deaths per year are caused by working 55 hours or more per week, as experts call on employers to introduce limits for remote staff

Working excessive hours can dramatically increase the risk of dying from a stroke or heart disease, research has found, as experts warn more needs to be done to limit hours for staff working remotely during Covid.

Research published by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization found working 55 or more hours per week increased the risk of dying from a stroke by 35 per cent, and increased the risk of death from ischemic heart disease by 17 per cent.

The two organisations estimated that, in 2016, 745,000 people died globally from strokes or heart disease caused by working 55 hours or more a week, a 29 per cent rise on the numbers in 2000.

The WHO warned that, because of the increase in remote working since the start of the pandemic, many people were working longer hours than before. “Teleworking has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO.

“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,” he said. “Governments, employers and workers need to work together to agree on limits to protect the health of workers.”

Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD, said the WHO’s findings proved the need for working time regulations. “There's a reason why working time regulation in this country falls under health and safety, and there's a 48-hour limit on the working week for most people,” she said, but added that the UK did have an opt out for some workers.

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Suff said firms needed to monitor working hours and, where employees were working excessively long hours, “get to grips” with why this was the case. “The underlying causes are likely to include unmanageable workloads – by far the greatest cause of stress – as well as unreasonable management expectations and work intensity more generally,” she said.

Duncan Spencer, head of advice and practice at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, advocated for a code of practice to prevent unsafe working, which he said would be “more persuasive than guidance” in ensuring good health and safety practice from employers. 

Spencer also said health assessment entitlements offered to night shift workers should be offered to all those working consistently long hours, and be supported by 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.

The research also suggested this was a worsening problem, with the number of deaths from heart disease or strokes because of working long hours increasing by 42 and 19 per cent respectively between 2000 and 2016.

The WHO research estimated that in 2016, 398,000 people died globally from strokes and 347,000 from heart disease as a consequence of having worked at least 55 hours a week. Respectively, this was a 42 and 19 per cent increase on the number of deaths in 2000.

The work-related disease burden was particularly significant in men, with 72 per cent of death occurring among males, and most affected people living in the Western Pacific and south-east Asia regions.

Most of the deaths recorded were among people dying aged 60-79 years old, who had worked 55 hours or more per week between the ages of 45 and 74 years.

Changing working conditions brought about by the pandemic have seen an increase in working hours across widespread industries. Earlier this year, analysis conducted by the TUC of data from the Labour Force Survey found that more than three million UK employees worked an extra 7.7 hours per week during 2020.

The union added that the top 10 occupational groups working overtime were all roles that could be done from home.

But the increased number of working hours has not led to increased productivity. Earlier this year, a CIPD poll of HR professionals found that three-quarters (77 per cent) saw presenteeism in staff working from home, while a similar number (75 per cent) saw it in employees attending the workplace. 

A separate report by Robert Walters found the majority of workers (87 per cent) who had been working remotely during the pandemic felt pressured to be more productive to “prove the case for working from home post Covid”, with 36 per cent reporting their mental health and wellbeing had suffered as a result of working longer hours during lockdown.