New warnings that many are working themselves to death

Amid the media coverage of the easing of lockdown in the UK against the backdrop of the rise in the Indian variant of the virus a report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) passed largely unnoticed.

The WHO and the International Labour Organisation have published the first global analysis of the loss of life and health associated with working long hours. It warns long working hours can lead to higher rates of heart attack and stroke. The study reported that being forced to work excessive hours led to 745 000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29 per cent increase since 2000.

With concerns that a move to remote working has seen staff working ever longer hours due to fears they do not want to be seen to be coasting, the report makes troubling reading.

The WHO and ILO estimate that, in 2016, 398 000 people died from stroke and 347 000 from heart disease as a result of having worked at least 55 hours a week. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease due to working long hours increased by 42%, and from stroke by 19%.

“Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard,” explained Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, at the World Health Organisation. “It’s time that we all, governments, employers, and employees wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death”.

The report added with working long hours now known to be responsible for about one-third of the total estimated work-related burden of disease, it is established as the risk factor with the largest occupational disease burden. This shifts thinking towards a relatively new and more psychosocial occupational risk factor to human health.

The study warned that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week.

Further, the number of people working long hours is increasing, and currently stands at 9% of the total population globally.  This trend puts even more people at risk of work-related disability and early death.

The new analysis comes as the COVID-19 pandemic shines a spotlight on managing working hours; the pandemic is accelerating developments that could feed the trend towards increased working time.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work,“ said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, 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. 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.”

The WHO has called for changes in working law that will see governments introduce, implement and enforce regulations and policies that ban mandatory overtime and ensure maximum limits on working time.

Jon Guy,


Emerging Risks