WHO report: Long work hours led to 750K deaths from heart disease, stroke

While many employees think working longer hours is a necessity for some jobs, the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization said it has lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths from heart disease and strokes.

The organizations recently posted their findings, saying 750,000 deaths related to long working hours were reported in 2016, a 29% increase from 2000. 

The WHO and ILO estimated that in 2016, 398,000 people died from a stroke and 347,000 people died from heart disease as a result of working at least 55 hours in one week. Results showed many of the deaths occurred in people between 60 and 79 years old who had worked longer hours when they were between 45 and 74 years old.

The report also pointed out that a significant number of deaths happened in the West Pacific and South-East Asia regions among middle-aged or older workers.

Men made up 72% of the deaths.  

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The study concluded 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.

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

Furthermore, the organization said the number of people working long hours is increasing and is now at 9% of the total population globally.

Researchers worry that the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to people working longer hours.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work," WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. "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," Ghebreyesus said.

The organizations have listed recommendations for governments and employees to take to protect workers’ health, including introducing laws that will ban mandatory overtime, strengthening labor unions and splitting the workload among employees.

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"The pandemic has broken the social and cultural norms for how we work," Timothy Golden, a professor of management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said. "Remote work has become much more accepted."

Ford Motor Co. told about 30,000 of its employees worldwide who have worked from home that they can continue to do so indefinitely, with flexible hours approved by their managers. Their schedules will become a work-office "hybrid": They’ll commute to work mainly for group meetings and projects best-suited for face-to-face interaction.

Ford is just the latest company to allow more work from home after the pandemic. Salesforce, Facebook, Google and other tech firms have said they’ll continue work-from-home policies indefinitely. Target Corp. will leave one of four downtown Minneapolis office locations because it’s moving to a hybrid model for 3,500 workers. It will keep other downtown offices.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.