Global study finds 745,000 workers killed annually by long hours

Written on 7 June 2021

Psychologists have long spoken about the importance of maintaining a work-life balance. Now, a global study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has revealed that working long hours kills hundreds of thousands of people a year.

The study, which looked at data from 194 countries, shows that 398,000 people died from strokes and 347,000 from heart disease in 2016 as a result of working long hours, represented a 29% increase since the year 2000. People living in China, Japan and Australia were most affected, but there are undoubtedly implications for employers worldwide.

Premature death

The study concluded that people working 55 or more hours a week are at 35% higher risk of a stroke and 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared to those working 35 to 40 hours a week. It also found that 72% of victims were middle-aged or older men. The deaths often occurred much later in life, sometimes decades later than the shifts worked.

The link between overwork and cardiovascular disease is not entirely clear; however, people working long hours are more likely to experience high levels of stress, eat poorly, exercise less, smoke and drink more alcohol, all of which are contributing factors to heart disease and strokes.

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A worsening trend

According to the WHO, the coronavirus pandemic could accelerate this “serious health hazard”. Although the study didn’t cover the pandemic period, WHO officials say that last year’s surge in remote working and economic slowdown may have contributed to the problem. In fact, it estimates that at least 9% of people now work long hours.

“The pandemic is accelerating developments that could feed the trend towards increased working time”, it said.

WHO officer Frank Pega added: “We have some evidence that shows that when countries go into national lockdown, the number of hours worked increase by about 10%”. Indeed, with so many businesses shut down or scaling back operations, people still on the payroll invariably end up working longer hours. 

Similarly, many businesses have found that they are suddenly incredibly busy upon reopening while at the same time operating on a reduced workforce. According to new data, nine in 10 hospitality business leaders are anticipating staff shortages this year. Again, this will likely lead to people working longer hours and a tendency to forgo breaks.

Studies also show that employees working from home face bigger workloads and spend longer periods working. A UK survey by the Office for National Statistics found people working from home during the pandemic tended to put in longer hours, averaging six hours of unpaid overtime a week. In contrast, people who didn’t work from home put in an average of 3.6 hours a week. This tendency to overwork, and the physical and mental health implications, has prompted one union to argue that workers should have a legal right to disconnect.

Indeed, the pandemic has forced many of us to adjust to new ways of working. While there have been a number of positives, including the obvious benefit of not having to commute to work, this time is now being eaten up by the increasingly blurred line between work and home life. Add childcare into the mix and maintaining a healthy work-life balance is harder than ever, and the WHO’s research suggests we may not feel the full effects until later in life.

The law

The Working Time Regulations (WTR) 1998 impose limits on workers’ hours of work that employers must follow when organising work time. The WTR provide workers with the following rest periods unless they are excluded workers or exempt:

  • 11 hours’ uninterrupted rest between finishing work and starting work the next day.
  • 24 hours’ uninterrupted rest per week or 48 hours uninterrupted rest per fortnight.
  • An uninterrupted 20-minute rest break during the working day, where working time is more than six hours.

Should workers be exempt, “compensatory rest” usually has to be given.

As an employer, the duty to manage the risk from working long hours lies with you, regardless of a worker’s willingness to work extra hours or preference for certain shift patterns. Compliance with the WTR alone is insufficient to manage the risks.



How do we ensure employees working from home don’t do in excess of 48 hours a week?

With difficulty! However, it is your responsibility to ensure they don’t breach the WTR. Case law emphasises this is a positive rather than negative duty, meaning you must ensure workers take rest breaks, not just that they can if they wish.

Get homeworkers to do timesheets and check them. Look for obvious signs of an inability to switch off such as emails sent late at night.


Must homeworkers be permitted breaks after six hours?

Yes, although it’s difficult to manage this, other than by relying on timesheets. Make sure homeworkers know they are entitled to breaks and that you encourage them to take them for their own wellbeing. After that, you will have to rely on them to self-regulate.


How can employers prevent overwork?

The WHO recommends that employers take the overwork hazard into account when assessing occupational health risks. It said: “What we want to do with this information is promote more action, more protection of workers”. 

Mr Pega stressed that capping hours is beneficial for employers as it has been shown to increase worker productivity. He commented: “It’s really a smart choice to not increase long working hours in an economic crisis”.

Try these strategies to prevent overwork:

  • Limit working hours, overtime and shift-swapping. Implement a set policy, monitor and enforce it. Robustly record working hours, overtime, shift-swapping and on-call working.
  • Practise proactive leadership. As an employer, you should be actively preventing overworking. Remember, if you yourself avoid the culture of overwork, it encourages employees to follow suit. Resist the temptation to contact employees during evenings, weekends and holidays and help them to manage their workload so that they don’t do this of their own accord. Being an empathetic and involved employer will also encourage employees to raise concerns if they feel overworked. Further, by being more involved with workers, you may notice signs of fatigue and take the necessary steps before things get out of hand.
  • Encourage a work-life balance. An unhealthy balance affects the overall wellbeing of employees and hurts your organisation. Respect your employees’ work-life balance and they will likely start respecting it themselves. Encourage workers to take breaks and use their annual leave. Set flexible working hours and train workers to fix work boundaries.
  • Cultivate a culture of care. Has your organisation normalised overworking? Do employees feel overwhelmed by long working hours? Do they often work on holidays? If so, it’s time to revamp your work culture. Hold one-to-one meetings with employees, making clear your organisation’s goals and output expectations. Employees may feel compelled to work beyond contracted hours, fearing their performance will otherwise be negatively scrutinised. Reaffirm that it’s okay to take breaks. Keep an eye on those who build-up unused holidays and encourage them to take time off, leave work at work, recharge and come back refreshed, rather than – in some cases quite literally – working themselves to death.

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