Long working hours can increase deaths from heart disease and stroke, say ILO and WHO

Long working hours led to 745,000 deaths from ischemic heart disease and stroke in 2016, a 29 per cent increase since 2000, according to new estimates from the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

In a first global analysis of the loss of life and health from these two diseases associated with working long hours, WHO and ILO estimated that in 2016, 398,000 people died from stroke and 347,000 from heart diseases attributable to having worked 55 or more hours per week.

The review found sufficient evidence that working at least 55 hours/week is associated with a higher risk of both ischemic heart disease and stroke, compared to working 35-40 hours a week. From 2000 to 2016, the numbers of deaths by heart disease from working long hours increased by 42 per cent, and those from stroke by 19 per cent.

Seventy-two per cent of deaths occurred among males. Middle-aged or older workers aged between 60-79 years who had worked for 55 hours or more per week between the ages of 45 and 74 years were particularly affected.

This is of particular concern given that the number of people working long hours globally has increased over time, to an estimated 479 million workers, or nine per cent of the global population, a trend that puts more people at risk of work-related disability and early death.

“Working long hours can lead to numerous mental, physical and social effects. Governments should take this issue very seriously,” said Vera Paquete-Perdigão, Director, Department of Governance and Tripartism, ILO. “The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation, as workers can be affected by additional psychosocial hazards arising from the uncertainty of the work situation and longer working hours.”

The spread of teleworking, new information and communication technologies, and an upsurge in flexible, temporary, or freelance jobs has increase the trend of working long hours. It has also led to the blurring of boundaries between working time and rest periods.

To tackle this problem, the report says that governments, employers and workers should put in place a series of measures, including:

  • Governments can ratify and develop policies to implement International Labour Standards on working time, such as setting standards on working time limits, daily and weekly rest periods, paid annual leave, protections for night workers, and the principle of equal treatment for part-time workers.
  • Governments, in consultation with the social partners (workers’ and employers’ organizations), can introduce laws and policies that ensure maximum limits on working time and promote workplace compliance for decent working conditions.
  • Employers, in collaboration with workers, can organize working time to avoid negative health outcomes for workers in relation to shift work, night work, weekend work and flexi-time arrangements.

The new estimates are looking into the number of deaths and healthy lives lost due to exposure to occupational risk factors, for example, exposure to chemical substances and cancer, among many others.

Detailed analysis of the estimates indicate that the 15 active ILO conventions relating to working hours saved about 143’000 lives, moreover, universal ratification of the conventions would be able to save additional 415’000 lives globally.

The analysis was made possible by new methodologies developed jointly by the ILO and the WHO that can estimate the impact of occupational risk factors to workers’ health. It hoped these methodologies will allow more evidence-based action for prevention.

Note for editors:

Two systematic reviews and meta-analyses of the latest evidence were conducted for this study. Data from 37 studies on ischemic heart disease covering more than 768,000 participants and 22 studies on stroke covering more than 839,000 participants were synthesized. The study covered global, regional and national levels, and was based on data from more than 2,300 surveys collected in 154 countries between 1970 and 2018.

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