New research from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) has shown longer working hours is causing a rise in workers dying from stroke and ischemic heart disease. 

Three-quarters of a million people (745,000) died in 2016 due to strokes and heart disease arising from longer working hours, estimates from WHO and ILO have stated.

Breaking this down further, the bodies estimate that,  in 2016, 398, 000 people died from stroke and 347, 000 from heart disease as a result of having worked at least 55 hours a week.

Within 2016, 488 million people were exposed to long working hours which consisted of working 55 hours a week or more.

This is a trend that has increased substantially since the start of the millennium. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease due to working long hours increased by almost half (42 per cent). Death caused by stroke rose by a fifth (19 per cent) during the same period.

Certain demographics were at heightened risk for dying from work-related disease including men (who made up almost three-quarters of cases), people living in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions, and middle-aged or older workers.

These statistics are of particular concern especially when considering how the pandemic has shaped long-term working patterns, owing to a lack of clear boundaries between work and life.

In particular, recent ONS statistics stated that, over the past year, homeworkers were undertaking an average of six hours of unpaid overtime each week. This was regardless of whether working from home was a main, occasional or recent work-model for them.

In addition to this, some of the deaths were shown to have occurred many years after the long hours were worked, showing the long-term impact of extended hours on employee wellbeing. The WHO stated that working longer hours was identified as the risk factor with the largest occupational disease burden.

As such, the WHO identified various areas where employers could take action, given that long working hours is responsible for roughly a third of work-related burden of disease:

  • Introducing, implementing and enforcing laws, regulations and policies that ban mandatory overtime and ensure maximum limits on working time
  • Arranging working time to be more flexible, while at the same, time agreeing on a maximum number of working hours
  • Employees could share working hours to ensure that numbers of hours worked do not climb above 55 or more per week.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said:

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work. 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.


*This research was taken from the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of Work-Related Burden of Disease and Injury.