As the world adapted slowly to the Covid-19 pandemic, most companies around the world pivoted from in-person work to having people work from home. Many found they were putting in longer hours, a trend that could spell an increase in strokes and heart disease.
A report released recently by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) found that long working hours — 55 hours or more per week — led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and heart disease in 2016, a 29 percent increase over rates in 2000.
In addition to calculating the number of deaths related to the health effects of long working hours, the report looked at estimated life expectancy after diagnosis of a stroke, which it portrayed in a data visualization map.
Frank Pega, one of the report’s authors, told PassBlue by email that it was impossible to look at the impact of working long hours during the Covid-19 pandemic because researchers needed at least five years to gauge long-term effects. That explains why they were using data gathered in 2016.
There’s little question, however, that 2020 took its toll on workers across the world. A 2020 study done by researchers at the Harvard Business School and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass., found that people were working longer hours during lockdowns in 16 large metropolitan areas in the WHO regions of the Americas and Europe than they were pre-lockdown — about 8 percent more, on average.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said in a press release. “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 2016 study found that about 9 percent of the world’s population put in longer hours that year than they had in previous years. Those who increased their hours from 35 to 40 a week to 55 or more faced a 35 percent higher risk of stroke and a 17 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease.
Work-related diseases are particularly significant among men; people living in the western Pacific and southeast Asia regions; and those between 45 and 74 years old.
“In low- and middle-income countries, workers in the informal economy can be 70 percent or more of the entire workforce,” Pega said. “These workers can be living in poverty and may as a result have to work long hours for financial survival.” Certain cultures tolerate longer hours, he added. Europeans may be less tolerant of longer hours than workers in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia regions.
While there is no clear explanation, other places, such as Mongolia and China, appear to experience a higher rate of female deaths from work-induced strokes.
In theory, women and men should be at equal risk, Pega said. “Based on the latest available evidence syntheses, we assume that females and males have the same increased risk of these cardiovascular diseases from working long hours. So, while the burden of disease is primarily carried by men (72 percent of all attributable deaths), the increases in risk of ischemic heart disease and stroke is assumed to be the same for females and males,” Pega said.
The National Bureau of Economic Research carried out research on 3.1 million workers in North America, Europe and the Mideast in 2020, before and after government-backed lockdowns. It found the average workday increased by 48.5 minutes (8.2 percent) during lockdowns — noting that companies could be getting the same output from fewer workers.
Meanwhile, the number of people working in gig economies has been increasing — a trend that predates the pandemic. Gig work often supplements other jobs, blurring the distinction between working and nonworking hours and yielding longer hours still.
For example, according to a 2020 University of Indonesia study based on information provided by a small number of local gig workers, the average working day was 12 hours.
To combat the health risks of working long hours, Ireland established a new practice that provides workers the right to decline to work extra hours.
Patricia King, the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, told the IPS Journal: “Workers essentially have the right to . . . refrain from working in electronic communications outside of the normal working hours. The pandemic highlighted that there certainly were circumstances that could be exploited or manipulated. People were expected to work past their normal working hours without receiving any compensation for it.”
Along with calculating the impact of long workdays on rates of stroke and heart disease, the joint UN report also looked at their contribution to alcohol consumption, depression and even lung cancer. There was no evidence that rates of risky drinking, or drinking that may lead to alcohol abuse, went up. Data are still being compiled to study the effect of long hours on depression, though one study reported that there was a possible association of long workweeks with the risk of an onset of depressive symptoms. Not surprisingly, jobs that expose workers to carcinogens, such as the fumes that are inhaled by welders, could prove more dangerous the longer the workers are exposed.
All told, working long hours accounts for about a third of work-related disease. That makes managing work hours important as companies transition from working at home to in-person settings. New York City, the epicenter of the Covid-19 virus for several months in 2020, has now officially reopened, as the UN headquarters there will fully reopen on July 6.
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Ivana Ramirez is from South Carolina. She will begin matriculating as an undergraduate student at Yale University in 2021. She writes PassBlue’s This Week @UN news summary and is the researcher for PassBlue’s UN-Scripted podcast series.