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UN Study Links Overwork, Death from Heart Disease, Stroke

FILE - Medical team perform a heart surgery in an operating room at the Saint-Augustin clinic in Bordeaux, France.
FILE - Medical team perform a heart surgery in an operating room at the Saint-Augustin clinic in Bordeaux, France.

A growing number of people around the world are dying from heart disease and stroke because of overwork, a new World Health Organization-International Labor Organization study says. The study is based on data from more than 2,300 surveys collected in 154 countries from 1970 to 2018.

The study says those working at least 55 hours a week are at higher risk of dying from heart disease and stroke. In 2016, the data show 1 in 10 people around the world, or 450 million, worked excessively long hours, leading to 745,000 heart disease and stroke deaths.

Frank Pega, a technical officer in WHO’s department of environment, climate change and health, says this is a 29% increase since 2000.

“We know that this burden disproportionately affects men," said Pega. "Seventy percent of all death deaths? from cardiovascular disease occur occurs? in men, according to our official estimates. Also, the regions that are most affected are Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. And we can tell you that it appears that middle-aged and older workers are disproportionately burdened.”

The study reports most recorded deaths are among those aged 60 to 79 who have worked for 55 hours or more per week. The lowest recorded number is in Africa, which has a young population.

It says Europe and North America have the lowest occupational disease rates. It says this is because people in these regions are largely covered by employment protections that limit the number of hours they work.

The new analysis highlights the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has on workers, who increasingly are working from home. Pega says teleworking and the digitization of work appear to be speeding the trend toward long working hours.

“We have some evidence that shows that when countries go into national lockdown, the numbers of hours work increased by about 10%. … We also have … a sort of massive increase in digitization of work, and digitization of work might actually make it harder to disconnect," said Pega. "… Rest periods and personal periods might need to be scheduled when you are working online, because otherwise you might be working very long hours.”

Health and occupational safety officials urge nations to consider the well-being of their populations as the world enters the post-COVID recovery period. They say governments must ensure that recovery measures are not pursued at the expense of the health of workers.

They say governments should introduce and enforce laws that ban mandatory overtime and ensure limits on maximum working times.