The Health Hazards of Overworking

It’s time to work less; your life may depend on it

Photo: Marten Bjork/Unsplash

Work too much? Need an excuse to put in fewer hours? Feel free to wave this new study under the nose of your boss: Working too many hours causes physical and mental stress that killed 745,194 people before their time in a single year around the globe, due to heart disease and strokes.

The analysis, the first analysis of its kind, was done by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization and was published May 17 in the journal Environment International. It analyzed data from 2016 and years prior, finding that deaths in 194 countries tied to excessive work hours rose 29% since the year 2000.

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

The long and short of it

Average weekly hours fell during the second half of the 20th century in most countries, the study authors note, but in recent decades it has leveled off or risen, and the rise is expected to continue, according to other research.

While the definition of “long hours” varies by country (and by boss), the study considered 35–40 hours per week as a global standard for normal, and 55 or more to be too long.

Working 55+ hours a week raises the risk of stroke 35% and the risk of heart disease 17% compared to working 35–40, the study found. About 72% of the premature deaths were among men, and most were ages 60 to 79 and had been working those long hours since age 45.

What’s going on? Two things, the researcher figure. The excess hours cause the body to release excess stress hormones that can mess with the body’s cardiovascular system. And people who work too much are more likely to abuse alcohol, fail to get enough physical activity, and eat and sleep poorly.

Stats to share with your boss

The new analysis is not the first to find bad health effects from long hours. Here are just a handful of others from recent years that echo the new findings and even find other risks:

Your boss should know long hours aren’t good for you or the business. Research has shown that long hours don’t translate into greater productivity, and instead can actually be bad for employee health, causing higher absenteeism, more turnover, and rising insurance costs.

The bottom line, in case you’re sharing this story with your boss: Working too many hours is bad for you and bad for your company’s bottom line.

Independent health and science journalist, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience, writing about how we age and how to optimize your mind and body through time.

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