UK best equipped to combat long hours fatalities

A worrying parallel between excessive working hours and life-threatening physical health issues has been revealed, but the UK may be best suited to combating overworking.

A new study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found working weeks exceeding 55 hours are associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease than 35-40-hour weeks.

The study has also calculated a total 745,000 people died in 2016 due to long hours.

The Western Pacific and South-East Asia carried a higher burden of ill-health related to long hours. The UK, fortunately, is seemingly better equipped to tackle overworking than some of the other geographies in the study according to Steve Herbert, head of benefits strategy at consultancy Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing.

He told HR magazine: "The life expectancy of UK workers, and the wider population, has been on a largely upward trajectory for the last few decades also. 

"Yet this apparent good news masks pockets of bad practice in some sectors, and HR professionals should take note of the WHO findings and respond accordingly."

Employers have a duty of care to ensure that workers are fit and healthy, he said.

"So it follows that HR professionals should do their bit to persuade employers to have realistic expectations, and employees to maintain sensible hours, take time off and have the periods of rest and relaxation that will help each worker reach maximum productivity. 

"That’s always been important, but is much more so as UK businesses strive to recover from 15 months of COVID-19 restrictions," he said.

Chris Parke, CEO at diversity advisory Talking Talent, said the detrimental effects of long hours, both for employees and employers, are now too big to ignore and business leaders must take urgent action.

He told HR magazine: “The WHO’s ground-breaking study is extremely concerning and shows the real physical toll that working too many hours is having on our health.

“We’ve known for years that a poor work/life balance can cause burnout, but these findings paint an even more sinister picture.”

Parke said the biggest asset of any organisation is its people, whose wellbeing must be supported.

“For too long, employers have been turning a blind eye to those working late and promoting an ‘always-on’ culture of long hours, and constantly checking and replying to emails in evenings and weekends.

“This has to stop,” he said.

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