It turns out that working long hours—the thing we’re required to do in order to live, in our current societal arrangement—is also the very thing that might end up significantly shortening our lives.
A new study from the World Health Organization has found that some 745,000 people around the world died in 2016 from stroke and heart disease resulting from being overworked. People who worked more than 55 hours a week, researchers said, increased their risk of stroke by 35 percent, and their risk of heart disease by 17 percent, as compared to people with 35 to 40 hour work weeks. This increased risk is partly due to the stress associated with long hours and partly due to the habits people tend to adopt when they’re crushed by work: smoking, drinking, sleeping poorly, eating poorly, and exercising less.
The effects can take some years to catch up to workers: According to researchers, most of the deaths occurred when people were between the ages of 60 and 79, after working 55-hour-plus days between ages 45 and 74. People who live in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions, men, and older people are most susceptible to work-related premature death.
These findings mean long work hours account for about one-third of the “burden of disease” we take on by working.
Public health experts are sounding alarm bells over the results of the study—the first global study of its kind—particularly since working conditions have, on the whole, only grown worse during the pandemic. Workers in the United States, United Kingdom, Austria, and Canada added 2.5 hours to their average workday during covid, with workers in the UK and Netherlands regularly wrapping up their days around 8 p.m. (This is all despite recent claims suggesting workers who don’t want to continue working remotely are not as “engaged” in their work as those eager to return to the office.)
“Teleworking has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general. “No job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease. Governments, employers and workers need to work together to agree on limits to protect the health of workers.”
Many workers have come to a version of this realization on their own—that a job is just a job and there’s no reason to let it consume our entire lives. But it’s not usually within our power to simply decide to work less, and global capitalism continues to normalize working yourself to death.
“The [pandemic] can make it much more obvious to us the ways work sucks but we still have to change it,” Sarah Jaffe, the author of Work Won’t Love You Back, told Jezebel in December. “The realizations that people are coming to, the reckonings people are having with work, those are happening everywhere. What we do with them then is the next question.”