How do long working hours impact health problems?

Week of 17 May 2021

How do long working hours impact health problems?

Our key takeaway: Long working hours are bad for health, creating mental, physical and social side effects. We know that these issues can reverberate more broadly throughout families and communities, affecting the broader landscape beyond just the four walls of the business.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO) collaborated to analyse the impacts of longer working hours on two key health issues globally: ischemic heart disease and stroke. Key findings of the study, which examined data in 194 countries from 2000 to 2016, include:

    • There is evidence that long working hours (55 hours or more per week) is associated with a higher risk of both heart disease and stroke. This is in comparison to the rates of these health issues in people working 35-40 hours per week. According to the study, exposure to work hours over 55 hours per week is linked to 745,194 deaths and 23.3 million DALYs [disability-adjusted life years] attributable to these problems, reflecting “4.9% of all deaths and 6.9% of all DALYs from these causes.” This also shows that “the disease burden attributable to exposure to long working hours is the largest of any occupational risk factor calculated to date, compared with those attributable to other occupational risk factors.”
    • These figures differ by region and by worker population. Overall, the study found that in 2016, 488 million people globally were exposed to long working hours (8.9% of the worldwide working population). However, some groups faced higher risks, especially “[m]ales and adults of early middle-age.” What’s more, “the global prevalence of this exposure category increased by 9.3%” between 2000 and 2016. In 2016, the regional exposure was largest for Southeast Asia (11.7%) and lowest for Europe (3.5%). From 2000 to 2016, the Western Pacific region had the largest increase in people exposed to long working hours, while it decreased most in Africa.
    • These findings are driven by trends like the gig economy, digitalised work and global economic crises. The study determined that the prevalence of long working hours “increased substantially” from 2000 to 2016 and that, “if this trend continues, it is likely that the population exposed to this occupational risk factor will expand further.” Some of the possible drivers behind this trend include the growing gig economy, where workers’ hours are often unregulated by employers and where workers may need to take on excessive hours to earn a living wage; the rise in “new working-time arrangements (e.g., on-call work, telework, and the platform economy),” which increase uncertainty and irregularity of working hours; and global economic and employment crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recessions. As these trends continue, the WHO and ILO anticipate an associated rise in the prevalence of ischemic heart disease and stroke. While the study did not consider other factors like shift work and seasonal work (e.g. for agricultural workers), the WHO and ILO point out that these additional factors are also “likely to affect both working hours and disease burdens” and should be considered in future studies.

For more, see World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO), Global, regional, and national burdens of ischemic heart disease and stroke attributable to exposure to long working hours for 194 countries, 2000–2016: A systematic analysis from the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-related Burden of Disease and Injur (May 2021)

“Working long hours can lead to numerous mental, physical and social effects. Governments should take this issue very seriously. 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.”

Vera Paquete-Perdigão, Director, Department of Governance and Tripartism, ILO

Fig. 1. Conceptual model of the possible causal relationship between exposure to long working hours and ischemic heart disease and stroke. Footnote: Adapted from Li et al. (2020a) and Descatha et al. (2020).