Slow down: working more than 55 hours a week can kill you

If you no longer know where work ends and personal life begins, you’re not alone. It got all muddled up during the pandemic, and many have forgotten what ideal working hours even are. If time dedicated to work starts inconspicuously piling up and you hear yourself saying, “the work is killing me”, you may actually be right. At least that’s what the newest extensive study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization suggests.

55 hours a week: the tipping point

The study published in Environment International is the first global analysis of the loss of life and health associated with working long hours, and the results are hard to ignore. First of all, working 55 or more hours per week carries an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke. On top of that, the risk of dying from ischemic heart disease is 17% higher compared to working 35-40 hours a week.

“Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, at the World Health Organization. “It’s time that we all, governments, employers, and employees wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death”.

What can we do?

WHO points out that the COVID-19 pandemic has indeed blurred the lines between work and home, but there’s more. Many companies are struggling to make ends meet, and the finances are often scarce. That means fewer employees are taking on more responsibilities to save money. Unfortunately, the risk isn’t “just” demotivation or burnout: it’s a matter of life or death in some cases. 

That’s why WHO recommends governments enforcing laws and policies that ban mandatory overtime. The organization also believes explicit agreements between employers and workers about the maximum working hours are necessary.

Ideal working hours

While WHO waves a red flag about exhausted workers and asks companies and governments to wake up, some countries have already tried to find the equation of ideal working hours. 

In France, for example, the working hours have been famously short for ages. Since 2000, the employees have only been spending 35 hours a week in the office. So far, French workers have been more productive than their peers, although some stagnation was recorded right before the pandemic. However, the need to rebuild the post-pandemic world led some countries, companies, and leaders to look into a 4-day workweek. 

For example, New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern encouraged employers to implement this system. Her goal was to boost productivity and domestic tourism and improve work/life balance. Unilever New Zealand agreed and decided to go for it. “Our goal is to measure performance on output, not time. We believe the old ways of working are outdated and no longer fit for purpose,” said Nick Bangs, managing director of Unilever New Zealand. 

Spain went even further than a recommendation. The country is eager to explore the 4-day work week to boost employee morale, mental health, and productivity. They’re willing to put money where their mouth is, and so the government has launched a three-year, €50m project that allows companies to join the trial with minimal risk.

While the past year has been full of challenges for workers worldwide, this could actually be one of the silver linings. Finally, quality over quantity.

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