Growing trend of long working hours a killer, says WHO, ILO study

The WHO and ILO analysis comes amid a growing trend for people to work longer hours during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic is feeding the trend since it has changed the way people work

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Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard, said a World Health Organisation official. Representative pic: iStock

There has been a significant increase in deaths due to heart attack and stroke because of the growing trend of working long hours, said a joint study conducted by WHO and ILO comparing figures between 2006 and 2016.

According to a media release, World Health Organisation (WHO) and Indian Labour Organisation (ILO) had conducted their first global analysis of the loss of life and health associated with working long hours. And, WHO and ILO estimated that in 2016, 3,98,000 people died from stroke and 3,47,000 from heart disease, as a result of having worked at least 55 hours a week.

“Between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease due to working long hours increased by 42 per cent, and from stroke by 19 per cent,” said the release. Since long working hours led to 7,45,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, it was a 29 per cent jump since 2000. These estimates were published in the Environment International on May 17.

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What is worrying is that the number of people working long hours is climbing up, and currently stands at 9 per cent of the total population globally. This trend puts even more people at risk of work-related disability and early death, asserted the study.

Males are more vulnerable to this work-related disease, citizens of Western Pacific and South-East Asian countries, and middle-aged or older workers. The age group of the people who largely succumbed to this disease were in the age group of between 60-79 years having worked 55 hours per week, and also the ones between the ages of 45 and 74 years, who worked for more than 55 hours per week.

The release stated that this joint study concluded that working 55 or more hours per week is now linked to a 35 per cent higher risk of a stroke and a 17 per cent higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week. The study covered global, regional and national levels, and was based on data from more than 2,300 surveys collected in 154 countries from 1970-2018.

Since it has been established that working long hours now is the reason for one-third of the total estimated work-related burden of disease, it is termed as a risk factor with the “largest occupational disease burden”. “This shifts thinking towards a relatively new and more psychosocial occupational risk factor to human health,” said the news release.

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The Pandemic and Long working hours

This disturbing new analysis comes amid a growing trend of long working hours being further accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is feeding the trend since the pandemic has significantly changed the way people work, the report stated.

According to Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, teleworking has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work. Additionally, 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.

Stating that “no job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease’, he suggested that governments, employers and workers should work together to agree on limits to protect the health of workers.

“Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard,” pointed out Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, at the World Health Organization. “It’s time that we all, governments, employers, and employees wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death”.

WHO and ILO recommendation

The release also stated what governments, employers and workers should do to protect workers’ health: Governments need to introduce, implement and enforce laws, regulations and policies that ban mandatory overtime and ensure maximum limits on working time; bipartite or collective bargaining agreements between employers and workers’ associations can arrange 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 the numbers of hours worked do not climb above 55 or more per week for any worker.

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