May 20, 2021

ILO and WHO: Long Working Hours Can Increase Deaths from Heart Disease, Stroke

Working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35 percent higher risk of stroke and a 17 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease, according to an analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) published in the journal Environment International. The organizations estimate that in 2016, 398,000 and 347,000 people worldwide died from strokes and heart disease, respectively, attributable to working long hours. The total number of deaths from both causes also increased by 29 percent globally between 2000 and 2016, a development that occurred alongside an international increase in the number of people working long hours. As of 2016, about 488 million people worldwide—8.9 percent of the global population—worked 55 hours per week or more.

The global burden of stroke and heart disease associated with long working hours disproportionately affected men, people living in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia regions, and middle-aged to older workers. The journal article’s authors conclude that long working hours is currently the occupational risk factor with the largest attributable disease burden worldwide. As deaths associated with work-related stroke and heart diseases increase—for example, by 19 and 42 percent, respectively, during 2000–2016—more workers will likely be affected in the future. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could worsen the trend.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general. "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.”

Vera Paquete-Perdigão, ILO’s director of Governance and Tripartism, also expressed concern that the pandemic could exacerbate the health effects of long hours. “Working long hours can lead to numerous mental, physical and social effects,” said Paquete-Perdigão. “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.”

Both WHO and ILO encourage governments to take action by introducing, implementing, and enforcing laws, policies, and regulations that ban mandatory overtime and set limits on working hours. The organizations also encourage employers and workers’ associations to permit more flexible working hours and agree on a limit to working hours. ILO and WHO also suggest that employees could share working hours to ensure that no single employee works more than 55 hours per week.

The authors of the report conducted two systematic reviews and meta-analyses, synthesizing 37 studies on ischemic heart disease and 22 studies on strokes, which cover more than 768,000 and 839,000 participants, respectively. The study uses data from more than 2,300 surveys collected in 154 countries from 1970 to 2018. The report can be read or downloaded from the Environment International website. For more information, read the WHO and ILO news releases.