a stressed out office worker running with his briefcase

Is Working Too Much Bad for Your Heart? 

I was asked a great question by a community member recently. He said, “Does working too much increase my risk for developing heart disease?” This inspired me to do some research. Here is what I learned.

The situation

Lord knows that many of us work more than 55 hours a week. The community member who posed the question said he works 2-3 jobs to make ends meet. Some people are forced into mandatory overtime to make sure hours are covered and the job gets done.

I have a friend who works on average six 12-hour shifts every week. That is 72 hours per week. Of course, he does this to help out the hospital system that we work for. Although, he does it to help pay the bills and make ends meet. He also does it so he can take his wife on vacation and enjoy life on his days off.

I often tease him: “You keep working like that you’re going to drop dead of a heart attack.”

As it turns out from my research today, I may not be far off in my statement there. Over the past several years, many studies have linked working too much with an increased risk for heart disease and strokes.

What do studies show?

Coincidentally, there was a study recently performed on this topic by the World Health Organization (WHO). The study was started in 2016 and published in 2021. The study concluded that working greater than 55 hours per week is not healthy for you. Working greater than 55 hours a week increases your risk of having a stroke by 35 percent. It also increases your risk of developing ischemic heart disease by 17 percent.1

The study showed that in 2016, 398,000 people died of a stroke due to working too much (greater than 55 hours per week). That same year, 347,000 people died of heart disease due to working too much. Within the next four years, the percentage of people dying of stroke due to working too much increased by 19 percent. Likewise, the number of people dying of heart disease due to working too much increased by a whopping 42 percent.1

So, this and similar studies show that limiting workers to 35-40 hours in a week is healthier for your heart than working 55 or more hours in a week. As one expert at WHO said, “Working more than 55 hours a week is a health hazard.”

Why might long workweeks cause heart disease?

A 2018 review of studies discussed some theories explaining potential links between working greater than 55 hour work weeks and heart disease. Two of the theories include:2

  • Psychosocial Mechanisms. These may include feelings of stress, depression, anxiety, and anger. These may be caused by high demand. They may be caused by not feeling like you are in control. All of these have may be caused by working too much and each has been linked to heart disease and stroke.
  • Biological Mechanisms. Here, working too much (or perhaps the psychosocial mechanisms noted above) may change the chemical composition (biomarkers) in your body. This may lead to diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, and increased inflammatory markers. All of these diseases have been linked to heart disease and stroke.

Long-term strategy

WHO experts recommended some strategies to limit workers to 55 hour work weeks. These include creating laws banning mandatory overtime, setting limits on the total hours a person can work in a given week, and having employees share working hours to prevent anyone from exceeding 55 hours in a given week.

I personally like to limit my overtime hours. Sometimes I like to pick up an extra shift, but when I do I know how burned out it makes me feel. The extra money is always nice but the thought of what this might do to my body if I did it every week prevents me from doing it too often. Now we know that my strategy might be good for my heart. It may even prolong my life.

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