Long working hours have been a controversial topic since the 1980s, especially following the death of a Japanese design engineer from a brain hemorrhage due to working 2,600 hours per year. Now, the first global study of its kind by the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that working too long is a significant contributor to early death all around the world.
The findings, published in Environment International, estimate the global numbers for injuries and mortality caused by long working hours. To get the figures, the researchers examined dozens of studies conducted in 196 countries on heart attack and stroke and analyzed data from more than 2,300 surveys from the 1970s to 2018.
The numbers are worrying
According to the WHO's findings, 488 million people were exposed to the dangers of working long hours, and over 700,000 people died in 2016 from heart disease and stroke, related to working at least 55 hours a week.
WHO says that those who work 55 or more hours a week have an estimated 35 percent higher risk of a stroke and a 17 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease than someone who works 35 to 40 hours in a week.
"No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease," WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, urging states, companies, and employers to find ways to safeguard workers' welfare.
The study doesn't include data from the past year in which the COVID-19 pandemic changed the lives of workers from all over the world drastically. Moreover, recession, as seen around the world during the pandemic, is often followed by an increase in working hours. Researchers note that overwork has been on the rise and that the pandemic "will likely accelerate those trends."
"Teleworking has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work," Ghebreyesus explained. "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."
Middle-aged workers and men are the most affected
Overwork was found to have the greatest impact on men and workers in their forties and fifties. According to the WHO map released with the report, less than 5 percent of the population in the United States were subject to long work hours, while people in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific area are the most at risk. People in Europe had the lowest exposure.
With project-based work and strict deadlines to meet, the engineering workforce can be also incredibly challenging. Engineers often feel they are overworked and underpaid, and the researchers say employers should be more flexible in scheduling across all industries and that employees can arrange to swap hours so that no one works more than 55 hours a week.