Overworking can be deadly, cautions global health study

28 May 2021 - 06:00
Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard, according to Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s department of environment, climate change and health. Stock photo.
Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard, according to Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s department of environment, climate change and health. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/Sergey Peterman

All the long hours you put in at work could be shortening your life, cautions eyebrow-raising research by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The long-term study, published in the journal Environment International this month, presented evidence gathered from global data. It found that overworking poses a serious  health hazard and can even be fatal.

The authors stated that “many countries define standard working hours as 35—40 hours per week”. On the home front, SA's Basic Conditions of Employment Act says “no employer shall require or permit an employee to work more than 45 hours in any week”.

However, it was reported that 488 million people globally worked 55 hours or more a week in 2016. This resulted in more than 745,000 deaths — that's over 13 times more people than have died from Covid-19 in SA to date.

WHY OVERWORKING IS A HEALTH HAZARD

The evidence presented by the study suggests that working long hours can lead to death and illness both from stroke and ischemic heart disease (damage in the heart’s major blood vessels due to narrowed arteries).

It was found that working 55 hours a week or more can result in a 17% higher risk of heart disease and a 35% higher risk of stroke than if you were putting in the standard number hours at the office.

Stress is largely to blame for this increased risk, both in terms of our biological response to it and the unhealthy behaviours we tend to adopt because of it. These include following an unhealthy diet, using alcohol or tobacco to cope, sleeping less and not exercising.

While the study doesn't include data for 2020, it comes at a crucial time given the increase in the number of people around the world who started working from home during the pandemic. Many are struggling to stick to regular work hours and steady routines as the concept of a “work-life balance” becomes even more blurred.


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