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Dying at Our Desks: Long Hours and Health

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Some things may seem self evident in terms of health and wellness, but until studied scientifically, they may not get the attention they deserve. For example, last week we learned that Southern food characterized by fried and greasy entrees was associated with a substantial increase in heart disease risk. No surprise but certainly good for reinforcing that these foods should be avoided for health.

This week we turn to working long hours and health. The expression "killing yourself at work" takes on new meaning with the publication of a massive research study on the topic. The scientists looked at data from 25 studies involving over 600,000 individuals and assessed if there was a relationship between heart events like heart attacks and strokes with standard work weeks (35-40 hours a week) compared with long work weeks (>55 hours). After adjustments for age and other known risk factors, the long work week was associated with a increased risk of heart events and particularly with stroke events. In fact, the more hours one works, the greater the risk of stroke increased in a dose-response manner.

The authors proposed that long hours increase the stress response that can lead to ill health, and is associated with more sitting, eating more suboptimal food, and more alcohol intake. Shorter sleep duration is another possible factor as it is known that cardiac outcomes are best served by 7-8 hours of sleep.

What are the implications of this study? For sure persons working these long hours should pay extra attention to known risks for heart disease and stroke such as smoking status, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and weight. Diets rich in fruits and vegetables, known to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, should be stressed and offered by workplaces in place of processed food offerings. Standing desks are growing in popularity to avoid prolonged sitting and the ill effects on metabolism that result. Worksite stress and alcohol management classes, utilizing yoga, meditation and walking programs may lessen the risk. Finally, some countries have imposed optional limits on weekly hours. For example, in the European Union workers may choose to limit their work to 48 hours a week. Employers should be aware that dead or disabled employees are not of value to the corporation and limits should be considered.