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Long working hours increase poor health outcomes for employees

In modern employment terminology, the word ‘work’ is often associated with the word ‘life’ as companies and employees alike pursue the Holy Grail of work-life balance and work-life integration.

However, a joint World Health Organisation/International Labour Organisation report released at the beginning of this week, suggests a strong relationship between the words ‘work’ and ‘death’.

The report said thatLong working hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016.” This death toll represents a 29% increase since 2000.

According to the research, this work and death link is most prevalent amongst men (72%) who worked 55 hours or more per week between the ages of 45 and 74 years. It also suggests that working 55 hours per week or longer is associated with a 35% and 17% increased risk respectively of dying from a stroke and heart disease compared with working for 35 to 40 hours a week.

Factors have contributed to increases in working hours and work intensification such as companies demanding more for less in response to hyper global competition and public organisations being forced to achieve more for less due to diminished funding.

Additionally, flexible ways of working linked to organisational agility, people having to work two jobs to survive and the increasing use of technology which enables ‘everywhere working’ have all had an effect.

Although the UK Prime Minister was quoted as saying people “have had quite a few days off” during the pandemic, the evidence suggests that far from this, the lockdowns have increased work duration and intensity. The WHO revealed that when countries go into lockdown, the number of hours worked increase by around 10%.

The UK’s Office for National Statistics also found that those working from home during the pandemic put in, on average, 6 hours unpaid overtime per week compared with an average of 3.6 hours of unpaid overtime from people who went into the office.

This WHO report clearly links excessive working with poor individual and public health outcomes. Clearly governments will need to consider their policy responses to this. At the employer level though, employers will need to carefully consider their duty of care and health and safety responsibilities.

For a clearer idea of where efforts should be focussed, the HSE have helpfully defined 6 key areas of work design which, if not handled well, can result in poor health and well-being outcomes:

  • The demands of the job
  • The level of control an employee has over their work
  • The amount of support employees are given, including resources
  • The nature of relationships in the workplace
  • The clarity and understanding of Role
  • The way that change is handled in the work environment

This WHO report clearly links excessive working with poor individual and public health outcomes.

The HSE stipulate that for each of these six standards there “must be systems in place locally to respond to any local concerns”. Over and above legal compliance though, these standards focus employers on job design and are a very useful set of parameters to critically analyse and judge the effectiveness of it.

We have to remember though that legal compliance is the bare minimum standard, and employers should be striving for much more, in an environment where employer brands and reputations can easily be destroyed through poor people practices.

Progressive employers are focussing on employee health and well-being as part of an integrated strategy of good people management. The most progressive globally are going beyond this and are concentrating on the whole employee experience.

In this light, some are looking at bespoke solutions for individual employees within the context of a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) for example, flexing the where, when and how employees work to suit individual needs.

What is clear is that this whole approach to work and working will need to be included in a comprehensive Human Resources strategy to handle this issue in an integrated way, to ensure the link between work and death is not perpetuated for generations to come.

If you need any assistance with this or other HR or employment law issues, please contact our Employment lawyers who will be happy to help.

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