Lisa Choi ignored the first symptoms. After all, this 53-year-old business analyst was very active, in good physical condition, frequently rode her bike, was a vegetarian, and avoided junk food. He was far from being your typical heart attack victim.
However, Choi, from his base in Seattle, USA, was working 60 hours a week, including nights and weekends. He had to meet strict deadlines and handle complex digital projects.
That workload was completely normal for her. “I have a really stressful job … I usually go flat out,” he says.
But a few months ago he began to feel as if he had the weight of an anvil on his chest, that he began to take the symptoms more seriously. At the hospital they found that he had a tear in an artery.
That is a hallmark of spontaneous coronary dissection (SCD), a relatively rare heart condition that in particular affects women and people under 50.
When told that she would need angioplasty to expand the artery, Choi thought, “I don’t have time for this. I have transfers scheduled at work and I’m doing all kinds of things.”
Like Choi, many people are also facing a deterioration in their health due to their intense work hours. Serious new research – described as the first study to quantify the health impact of long working hours – has shown how bleak the situation is.
In an article published on May 17, the authors, from institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO), note that each year, 750,000 people die of ischemic coronary heart disease and stroke, due to long hours of work. (Ischemic coronary artery disease involves atherosclerosis. Choi’s SCD is different from traditional coronary artery disease, but stress and high blood pressure are risk factors in both).
In other words, more people die for excessive work than malaria. This is a global crisis, requiring equal attention from employees, companies, and governments. And if we don’t solve it, the problem could not only continue, but get worse.
How Overwork Affects Health
In the study, published in the journal Environment International, the researchers systematically analyzed data from long hours of work, defined as 55 hours or more per week; its impact on health and mortality rates in most countries, between 2000 and 2016. The authors applied control factors such as gender and socioeconomic status, to extract the pure effects of excessive work on health.
The study establishes that excessive work is the greatest factor of occupational disease, responsible for roughly a third of the total burden of related diseases with andl work. “I personally, as an epidemiologist, was extremely surprised when we worked out the figures,” says Frank Pega, WHO technical specialist and lead author of the article. “I was extremely surprised by the size of the load.” Describes the results as moderate, although clinically significant.
There are two main ways that overwork can reduce health and longevity. One is the biological impact of chronic stress, with a spike in stress hormones that creates hypertension and raises cholesterol.
Then come the behavior changes. Those long hours could mean little sleep, little exercise, eating unhealthy food, and smoking and drinking to cope with them.
And there are particular reasons to worry about overwork, both while we’re in the covid-19 pandemic and in life afterward. The pandemic has intensified some work stresses, while generating new forms of fatigue in the workplace.
India has become the epicenter of the global pandemic, with more than 25 million cases of covid-19. But the pandemic is affecting health in other ways as well.
Sevith Rao, a physician and founder of the Indian Heart Association, explains that people in South Asia are already at high risk for coronary heart disease. Now, “with the covid pandemic, we have seen an increase in working from home, which has erased work-life balance of many individuals, and that generates alterations in sleep patterns and exercise; in turn, this increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. ”
Furthermore, the pandemic has resulted in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. A rprevious ecessions the they have followedthe journeys labor mwings long. “It almost seems like a perverse effect,” Pega acknowledges, given the widespread unemployment during a recession. But “the reality seems to be that people who remain employed have to work harder to make up for job losses.”
Hot spots of overwork
According to the data in the article, 9% of the world’s population – a figure that includes children – is working excessive hours. And, since 2000, the number of people who work excessively has been increasing.
Overwork affects different groups of workers in different ways.
Men work longer hours than women in all age groups. Overwork peaks in early middle age, although health effects may manifest later. (The study authors used a 10-year lag period to track the effects of overwork relative to disease onset; after all, “death from overwork” doesn’t happen overnight).
The data also shows that people in Southeast Asia appear to have the longest hours; in Europe, the shortest.
Pega explains that there are many cultural reasons why a higher proportion of people in Asia work longer hours. In addition, many people work in the low- to middle-income informal sector in Asian countries.
“People in the informal economy may have to work longer hours to survive, they may have multiple jobs, they may not be covered by social protection laws,” says Pega.
On the other hand, many Europeans enjoy a work culture with long vacations and substantial rest periods. This more relaxed attitude is enshrined in law; for example, the Working Time Directive of the European Union prohibits employees from working more than 48 hours on average per week.
But also in some European countries, especially outside of France and the Scandinavian countries, a growing proportion of highly skilled workers have been seen doing extreme hours since 1990 (after the rise of unionism and employee-related protections).
Tellingly, Austria’s health minister resigned from his post in April, saying he had developed high blood pressure and high sugar levels from overwork during the pandemic. His public announcement was unusual, not only because of his high-profile position, but also because he was actually able to quit his grueling job.
Back in Seattle, Choi is also fortunate, as her colleagues supported her need to slow down at work.
But how not everyone can afford to work in schedules more balancedOs– and not everyone will receive the warning before having a fatal stroke or heart attack, there is an urgent need to address this health crisis right now.
If the trend continues in the same direction, overwork – and the associated health damage – will only increase.
This is especially concerning, due to how societies glorify overwork to the point ofl exhaustion. And, as our working hours increase, with little sign of slowing down, so will the number of those who suffer from putting too many hours into the workday.
The responsibility to cut through that cycle rests with both employers and, in some way, employees, and all will have to collaborate to curb overwork and the problems that come with it.
In general, Pega urges employers to welcome flexible employment, job sharing and other ways to improve the balance of schedules. They should also take seriously the occupational health services.
“We at the Heart Association of India believe that more education and more screenings are key to preventing cardiovascular disease and stroke,” says Rao.
Clearly, there is also a role that individual workers can take in reshaping their attitudes toward work: We can all try to resist the pull of overwork that has us all glued to our phones late into the night.
And the faster they do this the better, as I eat overwork it is a risk that accumulates over the years, preventing it from becoming chronic could reduce the severity of the worst risks (although there is insufficient evidence as to when the risk goes from short-term to chronic).
But the most fundamental changes must occur at the government level.
“We already have the solutions. People have to apply limits to the maximum number of hours we should be working,” says Pega. There are examples of this, such as the European Working Time Directive, or with other laws on the right to disconnect.
In countries that have strong laws limiting work, the key is to enforce and monitor those laws. And in countries with few social security guarantees, anti-poverty laws and welfare programs can reduce the number of people who are wearing themselves to the bone out of sheer necessity.
Ultimately, the problem of overwork – and all the ills it generates – will continue if we don’t make changes in our work lives. And change is not impossible. “We can do something,” Pega insists. “This is for everyone.”
You can read this artArticle originally published in English at BBC Worklife.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.