The World Health Organisation says working longer and longer hours is killing hundreds of thousands each year, writes Jason Osborne
The line between work and personal life blurred throughout the pandemic for many, with bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms slipping in and out of ‘office-mode’ during the days of the week (and sometimes the weekend). As the world cautiously emerges from a state of oscillating lockdowns and re-openings, or seems to be anyway, it will be interesting to see how our work lives are affected.
It’s generally thought that the pandemic did the average worker few favours in terms of working hours – new studies seem to indicate that workers are putting in more hours on average per week. The workday bleeds into the evening and weekend more frequently, apparently to little financial benefit.
Couple this with social media posts and advertising campaigns exhorting a “rise and grind”, “hustle harder” mentality, complaints about the gradual encroachment of work over all of those areas of life that we once held to be ours are increasingly understandable.
Concerns about overworking are not frivolous or overly sensitive things, but real and concrete. The World Health Organisation (WHO) said that working long hours poses an occupational health risk that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year.
In a study published earlier this year, the World Health Organisation said people working 55 hours or more each week face an estimated 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying of heart disease, compared to people who adhere to the widely accepted standard of working 35 to 40 hours a week.
The global study revealed that in 2016, 488 million people were exposed to the risks of working long hours. In all, it said, more than 745,000 people died that year of overwork that resulted in stroke and heart disease.
“In a first global analysis of the loss of life and health associated with working long hours, WHO and ILO [International Labour Organisation] estimate that, in 2016, 398,000 people died from stroke and 347,000 from heart disease as a result of having worked at least 55 hours a week. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease due to working long hours increased by 42%, and from stroke by 19%,” the news release that accompanied the study read.
A name we’ve all become familiar with over the course of the past unfortunate year and a half, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that “no job is worth the risk of stroke or heart disease,” as he called on governments, businesses and workers to find ways to protect workers’ health.
However, as mentioned, the pandemic has accelerated the trends forcing workers into longer and longer hours, the director-general commenting on that at the time, too.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly changed the way many people work,“ Dr Ghebreyesus said.
“Teleworking has become the norm in many industries, often blurring the boundaries between home and work. In addition, many businesses have been forced to scale back or shut down operations to save money, and people who are still on the payroll end up working longer hours.”
With all of these factors conspiring against workers, what can be done to ensure that a healthy balance is struck? Quite a lot, actually. As many workplaces are still operating under pandemic conditions, these tips will be oriented towards those still working from home, although they can certainly be modified to keep any form of work in check!
If you have the space in your home, devote somewhere specifically to work, and furnish it as though it were your office (insofar as you can). This already creates a distinction in your mind between ‘work’ and ‘home’, no matter how subtle.
Setting a boundary in space is useful, but setting one in time is useful, too. Get serious about starting at your start time, and finishing at your end time, if at all possible. The tendency will always be there for most to start earlier and finish later, but if it’s the case that your health is at stake, it can wait.
Be honest about what you can handle
I suspect the majority of over-workers are simply doing their best to do a good day’s work – leading many to bite off more than they can chew. If you’re feeling the pressure, there’s no harm in saying ‘no’ to additional tasks when necessary. In fact, it may well be better for everyone. Taking on more than you can handle may lead to a task being done poorly, late or not at all. If the option is there to pass it along to someone who’s better positioned to do it, let it go.
A useful skill not only for work, but for life, offering a gracious but firm ‘no’ can save you a lot of trouble and heartache further down the line.
Take a set lunch break
It’s all about setting the boundaries. It’s a healthy thing to take your lunch break as often as possible, and healthier still to get up from your desk to do so. If possible, eat away from your desk and get some fresh air, giving your mind and body the break they need from your labours. You get better work done after a good rest than after an exhausting slog, anyway.
Turn off and put away work devices at the end of the day
This tip is of especial importance in these most unique of days. Late emails, texts or calls are a real siren song back to the desk. You’re well within your rights to turn them off and put them away at the end of the workday, that you might rest without fear of interruption.
Make good use of your downtime
You’re much more likely to feel well-rested at work if your personal time is well-spent. Those free minutes and hours you find in evenings and at the weekend should be truly leisurely. Scrolling Facebook or Instagram after a day of staring at a laptop is unlikely to slow your racing mind in the same way that a walk, read, good meal or trip to the cinema will. Make sure that your leisure time is leisurely, rather than wasted.