Can Working Too Much Overtime Be Counterproductive?

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Originally Published by: EHS Today — June 9, 2021
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Working well over 40 hours per week can increase your risk of work-related disability and early death.

In 2016, 745,000 people died from long working hours. That represents an increase of 29% since 2000, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO).

The WHO and ILO conducted this first-of-its-kind study on death and health associated with working long hours. Their findings were published late May in the journal Environment International.

Specifically, they found that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease compared to those working 35-40 hours a week.

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

Working long hours is now known to be responsible for about one-third of all work-related burdens of disease. It is the largest of any occupational risk factor calculated to date.

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What’s more, that risk has been increasing. Between 2000 and 2016, the exposed population increased by 9%, and the attributable burdens of death from ischemic heart disease and stroke increased by 42% by 19%, respectively. A majority of those deaths were men aged 60-79 who had worked for 55 hours or more per week between the ages of 45 and 74.

“After average working time decreased steadily over the second half of the 20th century in most countries, this overall downward trend ceased and even began to reverse in some countries during the 21st Century,” the authors write. “As new information and communication technologies revolutionize work, working time is predicted to further increase for some industries.”

The WHO says COVID-19 may have worsened the trend.  

“The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, in a statement. "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. No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease. Governments, employers and workers need to work together to agree on limits to protect the health of workers.”

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WHO recommends the following actions to protect workers’ health:

  • Governments can 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 that numbers of hours worked do not climb above 55 or more per week.