Are people dying from working long hours? Yes, according to a recent study
As further proof that long working hours are not a good thing, a new study finds there are higher risks of ischemic heart disease and stroke amongst people working more than 55 hours per week.
Out of the 488 million people — or 8.9 per cent of the global population — who worked these long hours, there were an estimated 745,194 deaths and 23.3 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYS) from ischemic heart disease and stroke combined.
Put another way, of all deaths from ischemic heart disease and stroke in 2016, 3.7 per cent and 6.9 per cent were attributable to working long hours, as were 5.3 per cent and 9.3 per cent of all DALYs, says the study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO).
So, what exactly is causing the dire results? For one, working long hours causes a psychological and physical stress response in the body, says Frank Pega, technical officer in the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health at the WHO in Geneva.
“We all know that stress hormones can damage the body, and there’s direct impact whereby stress hormones basically damage the arteries and, as a result, can lead to heart disease, ischemic heart disease and stroke.”
The second pathway is indirect, whereby workers putting in long hours might have less time or are less inclined to engage in health-promoting behaviour, says Pega.
“They might be less likely to be physically active, they might be less likely to eat healthily, and they might be more likely to engage in health-detrimental behaviours such as smoking,” he says. “Also, sleep deprivation is a key one... and these are risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, for ischemic heart disease and stroke.”
Understanding what’s behind the results
However, the WHO/ILO study raises a few questions, says Lieke ten Brummelhuis, associate professor of management and organization studies at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
For example, what are the working conditions for people putting in long hours?
“If someone doesn’t have any control over their job or if they don’t really like their job, or if they work in horrible conditions, such as heat or noise, then, obviously, that’s going to be very unhealthy,” she says.
Secondly, is this more about workaholism, involving people who are obsessed about work?
“They work long hours, but then after work, they can’t really switch off… they don’t really engage in a rewarding way in other life domains. And then at night, they keep ruminating about work. So, if you have that mentality, you can imagine that your stress levels remain activated and high at all times,” says ten Brummelhuis.
It is possible to work long hours without having an obsession, she says.
There is pressure to work long hours because people derive their identity from that.
“These are people who generally like their job, who have some autonomy of how they do their job and work in healthy offices… they work long hours but are not obsessed with their work, so they don’t have that cognitive component that keeps them mentally switched on all the time.”
Potential solutions to stressful hours
For those workers who are suffering from excess hours, there are a variety of measures that could help, according to the WHO and ILO. These include the implementation of international labour standards, along with regulations, policies, programs and interventions on working time arrangements.
Governments play a key role in establishing laws and policies around maximum working hour limits, says Pega, citing as an example the European Working Time Directive, which has set a limit of 48 hours per week for the European Union.
“They can then ensure that these are implemented, that these are monitored, and, if necessary, these are enforced by law.”
In addition, “the tripartite system could come up with teleworking regulations, where disconnection is possible to ensure that work periods are separated from rest and personal time,” he says.
Other options include collective and bilateral bargaining agreements where employers and workers jointly agree on limits, and shift work or flexible time arrangements, says Pega.
“Rather than having one person work 80 hours per week, we can have two people working 40 hours per week.”
Finally, employers can offer basic occupational health services, says Pega.
“They can ensure that the occupational health risk assessments include assessment of exposure to long working hours.”
But there’s definitely a component of organizational culture in all of this, says ten Brummelhuis.
“There is pressure for people to work long hours because people derive their identity from that…. So, that is, at a society level, really an issue where people need to be mindful it is actually not cool [to work late] because you might die from a heart attack at 65 if you keep up this lifestyle.”
In addition, senior-level executives have an exemplary function and can, for instance, talk about what they do to unwind after work or maintain work-life balance, to indicate that there’s more to life than work, she says.
There should also be greater emphasis on quality of work, says ten Brummelhuis.
“We really need to go to a results-oriented climate where we say, ‘If you do this task really well in three hours, whereas we thought you would do it in six hours, well, good for you — take the afternoon off….’ That focus on quality is much better than [focusing on] who was still in the office at 6 pm on a Thursday evening.”