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Study: Working long hours can kill (and what HR can do to lessen the load)

WHO and ILO research finds the health implications of over-working.

Allie Nawrat

working late
Credit: Dima Berlin via Twenty20.

Not to be dramatic, but overtime is killing your employees. Unleash Your People

  • Working late is having an impact on employee’s mental health.
  • But research by the WHO and ILO also found it is also the biggest risk factor for illness in the workplace.
  • What can employers do to tackle this and how can HR tech help?

Work-life balance was under threat before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has worsened the situation and pushed stress and burnout to an all-time high. This is primarily because employees have struggled to switch off from work during the pandemic, causing them to work longer hours.

Research by ADP’s Research Institute found that although employees were optimistic about their job during COVID-19, they were concerned about their job security. This, in turn, led to 78% of those surveyed taking on extra tasks and working longer hours. ADP’s study also found that unpaid overtime grew from 7.3 hours a week in 2020 to 9.2 hours in 2021.

Now, research by the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labor Organization (ILO) has found that over-working doesn’t just have an impact on individuals’ mental wellbeing, but on their physical health, too.

The WHO and ILO found that over-working caused one in three work-related illnesses and therefore was the biggest disease risk factor in the workplace.

Since 2016, over-working caused more than 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease – this represents a 29% increase on 2000 levels. This is according to data collected from 59 scientific studies of more than 1.5 million participants and 2,300 surveys from 154 countries since 1970.

In addition, working more than 55 hours was associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared to working up to 40 hours a week.

This is even more pronounced in men – this gender cohort saw 72% of deaths – and people aged between 60 and 79 who had worked at least 55 hours a week between the ages of 45 and 72.

How to stop employees over-working?

WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted: “The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work.

 “Teleworking has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work.

“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.”

Therefore, the WHO and ILO call on employers to work with unions and workers to encourage flexible working, while also agreeing the maximum number of working hours that are expected.

In addition, the global organizations called on employees to share their working hours with their companies to ensure they don’t exceed 55 hours a week.

The WHO and ILO also called on governments to step and introduce – then enforce – laws that ban mandatory overtime and ensure limits on working hours.

This is in line with unions calling on the UK government to follow in the footsteps of Ireland and Canada in introducing a right to disconnect from work to tackle escalating stress and burnout.

Enter technology

As the world moves away from fully remote to a hybrid of in-office and home working, now is the perfect time for HR leaders to focus on tackling any elements of a company culture that associate presenteeism with productivity and reward over-working.

Managers and HR teams need to lead by example and stop working late in order to show employees that finishing on time won’t affect their future career prospects.

Of course, HR tech also has a role to play here. Although the inability to get distance from computers and workplace tech may be partly responsible for the overwhelm employees are experiencing, if used correctly, HR tech solutions can allow employers to help staff switch off from work.

[Read more: Zoom CEO Eric Yuan has ‘Zoom fatigue’ too]

HR teams could equip their teams with time management tools to help them to prioritize their workload, as well as figure the tasks that are challenging them most and therefore flag recurring workload issues to managers more easily.

Examples of the types of tech that employees could make use of are Habit Minder, Focus Booster, and Scoro.

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