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Long working hours are bad for your health

Telehealth concept. Doctor with a stethoscope on the computer laptop screen. Cap.: Long working hours were responsible Image credit: gjerome69 / 123rf
Long working hours were responsible for 745,000 deaths in 2016 alone, according to the WHO and ILO. Image credit: gjerome69 / 123rf

Long working hours are detrimental to your health and may even cost lives. This is according to a recent assessment by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), which attributed long working hours to 745,000 deaths due to stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016 alone. 

According to the ILO/WHO analysis, the first of its kind, strokes claimed 398,000 lives and ischemic heart disease claimed 347,000 lives. These deaths were attributable to long working hours – specifically, working in excess of 55 hours weekly. To aggregate deaths due to these conditions, they represented a marked increase from 2000. In the case of heart disease, the deaths increased by 42 percent and, due to stroke, by nineteen percent. Overall, the deaths increased by 29 percent. 

It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way in which we work. The transition in many sectors to remote working, or working from home, has blurred the lines between one’s personal life and their occupation. As such, maintaining a work-life balance has become harder for many people. In India, according to Statista, working from home has had benefits for employees such as flexibility, time saved due to a lack of travel, and some even did report having an improved work-life balance. But, there is a flipside. Despite remote working being ostensibly here to stay, a report published in March this year found that “67 percent large and seventy percent mid-size Indian firms…are not in favour of a post-pandemic, remote working set-up” as reported by DNA India. There is also the stress of one’s home becoming their office, isolation from co-workers, experiential losses, and infrastructural issues such as internet connectivity. 

The WHO acknowledges this trend. “The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work,“ said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “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.”

The findings of the WHO and ILO estimated that the “work-related disease burden is particularly significant in men (72 percent of deaths occurred among males), people living in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions, and middle-aged or older workers. Most of the deaths recorded were among people dying aged 60-79 years, who had worked for 55 hours or more per week between the ages of 45 and 74 years.” They conclude that “working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35 percent higher risk of a stroke and a seventeen higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week.”

Health Issues India has reported on working conditions in India in the past, noting last year on the occasion of World Day for Safety and Health at Work that “the death toll due to workplace accidents or workplace-related diseases numbers at more than 2.78 million workers globally.” While workplace safety is often thought of in terms of physical accidents, it is important to factor in psychosocial wellbeing – underscoring why the WHO and ILO’s findings are so important and should meaningfully influence how we consider the way we work. As we noted last year

“A 2010 study noted the following: “legislation on occupational health and safety has existed in India for several decades.” However, the “laws pertaining to health and safety of workers at workplaces have remained static. There is an upward swing in the number of accidental deaths and injuries and occupational diseases—but the figures reported are much lower than the actual figures. Specialised manpower and related infrastructure for dealing with health and safety aspects of workers and surrounding populations have not been developed as per the desired requirements.” In the decade since, workplace safety in India remains a concern.”

The WHO and ILO recommend that “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; [and] employees could share working hours to ensure that numbers of hours worked do not climb above 55 or more per week.” It is high time such reforms are made. 

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