Story at a glance

  • The World Health Organization and International Labour Organization co-authored a study focusing on the hazardous effects of overworking.
  • They found that in addition to fatalities, adverse health instances from working long hours affected more than 23 million life years in total.
  • Most countries limit working hours to 48 per week.

Long working hours are linked to more than 745,000 deaths worldwide, along with a bevy of poor health outcomes, according to a new study Monday conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Working in partnership with the International Labour Organization (ILO), the WHO cross-referenced diseases occurring among 488 million surveyed people who worked at least 55 hours per week.

Standard working hours vary on a country level, but worldwide they do not typically extend past 48 hours per week. 

Aside from fatalities, researchers looked at disability-adjusted life years, or portions of an individual's life affected by illnesses like heart disease and strokes. 

This data encompassed working populations from 194 countries, with 183 focused on the health outcomes potentially resulting from being overworked. 


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Results indicate that an estimated 745,194 deaths were attributed to working more than 55 hours per week, and 23.3 million life years total were impacted by the adverse health outcomes associated with working for long periods of time. 

Among estimated deaths, ischemic heart disease accounted for roughly 46.5 percent of associated fatalities, while stroke accounted for a corresponding 53.5 percent. 

“WHO and ILO estimate exposure to long working hours...is common and causes large attributable burdens of ischemic heart disease and stroke,” researchers concluded. “Protecting and promoting occupational and workers’ safety and health requires interventions to reduce hazardous long working hours.”

When modeling health outcomes, researchers also factored in confounding variables, including smoking and physical inactivity. These two could also function as mediators, however, which are variables underlying the relationship between long work hours and poor health outcomes. 

Among demographics, men tend to carry a larger risk as opposed to their female working counterparts for deaths associated with heart disease and stroke brought on by working long weekly hours. 

The disease burdens were also disproportionately high among workers in the Southeast Asian and Western Pacific regions.

WHO and ILO authors conclude by calling for policy reform that protects workers’ rights. 

“Legislation, regulations, policies, programmes, and interventions on working time arrangements must ensure that the setting, monitoring, and enforcement of hours of work and the number of additional hours performed by workers occur within a framework that does not harm human health,” the authors wrote. 


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Published on May 17, 2021