WHO: Long working hours led to increase in heart disease, stroke deaths

The recently published report may have implications for EMS providers who work long hours and frequent overtime shifts


By Laura French

SWITZERLAND — Long working hours led to an increase in stroke and heart disease deaths worldwide over recent decades, according to a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labor Organization (ILO).

WHO and ILO estimate there were approximately 398,000 deaths from stroke and 347,000 deaths from ischemic heart disease in 2016 that were the result of having worked at least 55 hours per week, according to the analysis published this week in Environment International. The study involved two systematic reviews and meta-analyses of 37 studies on ischemic heart disease covering more than 768,000 participants and 22 studies on stroke covering more than 839,000 participants. WHO and ILO also established a database of weekly work hours that includes more than 2,300 surveys from 154 countries, collectedly from national statistical offices.

The report states that stroke and heart disease deaths related to long weekly work hours increased by 19% and 42%, respectively, between 2000 and 2016. In total, stroke and heart disease deaths linked to working 55 or more hours per week increased by 29% between 2000 and 2016, according to the WHO and ILO estimates. 

"Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard," said Dr. Maria Neira, the director of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health at WHO, in a statement. "It's time that we all, governments, employers, and employees wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death." 

The study concluded that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours per week. Most of the deaths included in the study occurred among men (72%) and were also particularly significant in middle-aged or older workers, and workers living in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia regions. Most deaths were recorded among people between the ages of 60 and 79 who had worked 55 hours or more per week between the ages of 45 and 74. 

"I worry about the implications of this research for EMTs and paramedics, many of whom work greater than 55 hours per week because of late calls, accepting overtime shifts or having to work multiple EMS jobs to make a decent living," Greg Friese, EMS1 Editorial Director, said. "High occupational stress and poor health and wellness habits already put many EMS providers at risk for cardiovascular disease. This is another call for EMS employers, payors and regulators to improve working conditions, reduce hours and increase pay for our frontline healthcare workers." 

WHO and ILO made recommendations for governments, employers and workers based on their analysis:

  • Governments can introduce, implement and enforce laws, regulations and policies that ban mandatory overtime and ensure maximum limits on working time;
  • Bipartite or collective bargaining agreements between employers and workers' associations can arrange working time to be more flexible, while at the same time agreeing on a maximum number of working hours;
  • Employees could share working hours to ensure that numbers of hours worked do not climb above 55 or more per week.

 

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