New Report Suggests Working Long Hours Kills About 745,000 People Per Year

Startling new study data from the World Health Organization links working long hours to death from heart disease and stroke.
A new WHO study suggests long work hours may kill hundreds of thousands of people around the globe every year.
Thana Prasongsin via Getty Images
A new WHO study suggests long work hours may kill hundreds of thousands of people around the globe every year.

Putting in long hours at work isn’t just emotionally and physically draining; it can be deadly, according to a new report from the World Health Organization and International Labor Organization.

The peer-reviewed study, which WHO says is the first global analysis of its kind, found that 488 million people around the world put in long work hours, defined as 55 hours or more per week.

People who work long hours had a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of heart disease compared to those who worked 35 to 40 hours per week, the researchers concluded.

In 2016, the year the study focused on, long working hours led to an estimated 745,194 deaths from stroke and heart disease.

WHO warns that long working hours are on the rise around the world, which puts even more people at risk of work-related disability and early death. The agency is also concerned about the likely impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as millions of people have put in a grueling year-plus of even longer hours working from home, while others have been forced to do more with less in the face of sweeping layoffs.

“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,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, in a press release. “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.”

But well before the pandemic, public health experts and health care providers were sounding the alarm about just how harmful long work hours can be for people’s health, no matter the industry.

“Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard.”

- Maria Neira, World Health Organization

Burnout, for example, has been linked to increased risk of cold and flu as well as chronic concerns such as headaches, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal disorders and hypertension. Burnout can also lead to serious mental health issues like clinical depression.

Researchers have also understood for some time now that long work hours are particularly harmful for cardiovascular health — though the new WHO report is really the first to quantify the global toll. It’s not totally clear why, though it could be that people who put in long work hours simply do not have enough time to engage in healthy activities, like getting physical exercise or spending time with family and friends. Those people might also be exposed to harmful hazards at work, ranging from “high demands” and lack of light to exposure to dust and toxic chemicals.

The new report did find some differences in who is at greatest risk for serious outcomes as a result of long work hours. The risk of death was highest in men, people living in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions, as well as middle-aged or older workers.

But the findings also make it clear that putting in really long hours at work is potentially harmful to everyone, no matter their field or circumstances.

“Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard,” said Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s department of environment, climate change and health, 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.”