The Very Real and Potentially Fatal Occupational Disease Burden

Working long hours can be bad for our health! The first global study of its kind found that 745,000 people died in 2016 from stroke and heart disease traced to working long hours. The research found that working 55 hours or more a week was associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared with a working week of 35 to 40 hours.

Working long hours was estimated to be responsible for about a third of all work-related disease, making it the largest occupational disease burden. The report found that people living in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific region were the most affected and those living in parts of Europe the least affected because work hours are limited.

The researchers hypothesized two possible mechanisms longer working hours led to poor health outcomes. The first is through direct physiological responses to stress, and the second due to adopting unhealthy coping strategies such as tobacco and alcohol use, less sleep and exercise, and an unhealthy diet.

While the WHO study did not cover the period during the pandemic, WHO officials said the recent jump in remote working and the economic slowdown may have increased the risks associated with long working hours. Many other experts have made similar predictions due to not ‘unplugging’ when working from home, childcare issues, and layoffs meaning less resources to assist in completing work. 

From senior executives to middle managers to employees, all within the work community are impacted. It is important for organizations to address this impact holistically, including assessing the culture surrounding work and productivity. Recently a conversation was overheard involving an employee receiving an email from her manager at midnight and feeling the need to respond. She strongly perceived that was the expectation. Yet there has been a plethora of articles on the benefits of unplugging, taking time off, and promoting self-care, not just for well-being, but for productivity as well as safety.  In fact, we are better leaders, co-workers, partners, parents, and friends when we follow this advice.  

What can organizations consider?

  • Assess the culture and work policies, including the ‘unwritten’ expectations of how work gets done.
  • Set boundaries for the number of work hours per week as well as for the time limits during the day for conducting work. 
  • Watch for continuing overtime hours.
  • Actively promote unplugging and for taking time off.
  • Take steps not to reward extended work hours to complete a project. Instead, reward unplugging and time off.
  • Consider electronic programs that send messages to remind employees to take breaks and to unplug. There are options that track work times, including when emails are sent.
  • Offer initiatives to promote well-being, resilience, and energy management.
  • Educate all managers and provide support and reinforcement.

Please contact us for a no obligation consult on well-being, resilience, and energy management initiatives for the health of your leaders, employees, and organization. The bottom line is that work impacts health and well-being in many ways, this is just one.  The well-being of employees is inextricably tied to the well-being of the organization.

Click here for the study: Health Burden of Overtime

Photo by Jair Lázaro on Unsplash

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