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Working a Lot? It’s Probably Affecting Your Health

A large review finds that long works hours lead to heart disease, stroke.

Key points

  • Approximately 488 million people across the globe work more than 55 hours a week.
  • Those who do have a significantly increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and even death.
Jim Ekstrand/Adobe Stock
Source: Jim Ekstrand/Adobe Stock

Work is a major component of most people’s lives. On average, Americans spend 41 hours working outside the home each week, according to the International Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But that number masks a lot of variation. For example, people who work in the mining and logging industries work an average of 46 hours a week, while those who work in hospitality average 25 hours a week. Across the globe, there is a wide variation as well. For example, people living in Colombia work an average of nearly 49 hours a week, while those living in Denmark work only 37 hours per week.

Why does this matter? A new systematic review sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO), found that working longer hours is associated with a higher risk of developing serious health problems and even death.

For the study, the authors combined data from two previous systematic reviews that included 37 studies on heart disease and 22 studies on stroke from 1970-2018. More than 1.5 million people in total were represented in the studies. The reviews were conducted by the WHO, the International Labor Organization, and the United Nations to create a global picture of how work hours affect health and wellness.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an increased risk of disease. Specifically, those who work more than 55 hours a week are 35 percent more likely to have a stroke and 17 percent more likely to die from heart disease compared to people working 35-40 hours a week.

Approximately 488 million people across the globe work more than 55 hours a week, according to the review. Based on the data, the researchers estimate 745,000 people died from stroke and heart disease in 2016 as a result of working long hours – a 29 percent increase compared with data from 2000.

Most of the deaths in the study were of people between 60 and 79 years old who had worked 55 hours or more per week for decades. Working long hours – and the subsequent health consequences – were more likely to affect men and people living in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions.

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

Many of the solutions to this global health problem are related to government policies and labor contracts, especially for those earning lower incomes or who have to work more than one job to make ends meet. As an individual, you can be mindful of how your working hours affect your overall health and make adjustments if you’re able.

The take-home message: Working long hours over the course of years can have a serious impact on your health, and can specifically increase your risk of developing heart disease or having a stroke.

References

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work.

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