The risk of heart disease or a stroke is increasing.

SW – 05/2021

People who work 55 hours a week or more face a significantly higher risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke. This is the conclusion of a joint study published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on May 17, 2021.

In their first global analysis of the loss of health and life associated with long working hours, both organisations estimate that 398,000 people died from strokes and 347,000 died from heart diseases in 2016 because they worked 55 hours or more per week. The number of deaths from heart disease caused by long working hours increased by 42 per cent and by 19 per cent from strokes in the years between 2000 and 2016.

The study concluded that working 55 hours or more per week significantly increased the risk of dying from heart disease or a stroke compared to the risk associated with a 35 - 40 hour working week. In addition to physiological reactions of the body to psychosocial stress caused by long working hours, behavioural reactions to a stressful lifestyle that are detrimental to health often play a role here, i.e. alcohol and tobacco consumption, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and sleep disorders.

Working 55 or more hours per week is linked to an estimated 35 per cent higher risk of stroke and a 17 per cent higher risk of dying from coronary heart disease. At the same time, the number of people working long hours is increasing, and this now accounts for 9% of the world's total population.

Long working hours are responsible for about one third of the total estimated occupational disease burden and they are now considered to be the risk factor with the greatest occupational disease burden. This brings into focus a relatively new and a more likely psychosocial occupational risk factor for human health.

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating this trend. It has significantly changed the way many people work, making working from home the norm in many industries and this often blurs the lines between peoples’ personal and working lives. Many companies have been forced to scale back or close in order to save money. Those who remained employed have frequently ended up working longer hours. No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease, according to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO.


Governments, employers and employees will have to work together to agree upon limits to protect employees' health. Governments are being urged to introduce and enforce laws and policies that prohibit compulsory overtime and ensure maximum working time limits. Collective agreements between employers and employees' associations could make working time more flexible, but only if a maximum working time is agreed upon at the same time. It is also conceivable that models for sharing working time in order to ensure that the number of hours worked does not exceed 55 or more per week should also be introduced.


The analysis draws on data taken from more than 2,300 surveys collected in 154 countries between 1970 and 2018 and 37 coronary heart disease studies with more than 768,000 respondents and 22 stroke studies with more than 839,000 respondents. Deaths are particularly noticeable among men in relation to women, which might partly be due to the fact that domestic work is still done by women in many regions of the world, but this was not recorded in the statistics.