Long working hours are silent killers, taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of people every year, a study conducted by two UN agencies has found.

Extra working hours led to 745 000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29 per cent increase since 2000, according to the latest estimates by the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization.

WHO and ILO estimate that, in 2016, 398,000 people died from stroke and 347,000 from heart disease as a result of having worked at least 55 hours a week. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease due to working long hours increased by 42 percent, and from stroke by 19 percent.

Results of the study, which is the first global analysis of the loss of life and health associated with working long hours, was published in Environment International on Monday.

This work-related disease burden is particularly significant in men, who account for 72 percent of deaths. Most of the deaths recorded were among people living in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions, and middle-aged or older workers. People dying in their 60’s and 70’s had worked for 55 hours or more per week between the ages of 45 and 74 years, the study has found.

With working long hours now known to be responsible for about one-third of the total estimated work-related burden of disease, it is established as the risk factor with the largest occupational disease burden.

The study concludes that working 55 or more hours per week increases the risk of a stroke and dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week.

It has also revealed a trend of the number of people working long hours increasing, which currently stands at 9 percent of the total global population. This trend puts even more people at risk of work-related disability and early death.

The new analysis comes as the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating developments that could feed the trend towards increased working time.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “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,” he added. No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease, accoridng to the head of the UN Health wing.

“Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard,” in the opinion of Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, at the World Health Organization.

He suggested that governments introduce, implement and enforce laws, regulations and policies that ban mandatory overtime and ensure maximum limits on working time.

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