The long-term work kills hundreds of thousands of people a year in a deteriorating trend that could accelerate further due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization said Monday.
In the first global study of life loss associated with longer working hours, the article in the journal Environment International showed that 745,000 people died in 2016 from stroke and heart disease associated with long working hours.
This was an increase of almost 30% from 2000.
“Working 55 hours or more a week is a serious health hazard,” said Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health.
“What we want to do with this information is to promote more action, more protection of workers,” she said.
The joint study, compiled by the WHO and the International Labor Organization, showed that most victims (72%) were men and were middle-aged or older. Often the deaths occurred much later in life, sometimes decades later, than the shifts worked.
It also showed that people living in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific region, a WHO region that includes China, Japan and Australia, were most affected.
Overall, the study – based on data from 194 countries – said that 55 hours or more per week is associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to ‘ a 35-40 hour work week.
The study covers the period 2000-2016, and therefore does not include the COVID-19 pandemic, but WHO officials said that the increase in telework and the global economic slowdown due to the coronavirus emergency increased the risks.
“The pandemic is accelerating developments that could promote the trend towards increased working hours,” the WTO said, estimating that at least 9% of people work long hours.
The WHO staff, including its head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, say they worked long hours during the pandemic, and Neira said the UN agency would try to improve its policy in light of the study.
The limitation of hours will be beneficial for employers as it appears to increase the productivity of the workers, said WHO Technical Officer Frank Pega.
“It really is a smart choice not to increase long working hours in an economic crisis.”