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Long hours at work cause heart disease!

on Friday, 16 November 2012. Posted in Office Ergonomics, Occupational Health

heart disease long hours

Regularly working longer hours can come at a significant cost to one’s health. Recent research published in the American Journal of Epidemiology by Dr. Marianna Virtanen found that people who worked eleven or more hours per day had a 60% higher risk of heart-related problems than those who worked a normal eight hour day.

These problems include angina, non-fatal heart attacks and even death due to heart disease.

Study findings: Long hours lead to risk of heart problems

Virtanen and her team from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health gathered data from 12 different studies which went back as far as 1958. It was in 1958 that researchers around the world were starting to suspect that long work hours could be linked to poor heart health. In total, the studies involved more than 22,000 participants, from Britain, USA, Japan, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands. Of these 22,000 participants, 57% were men and 43% women. Virtanen and her team conducted a meta-analysis, which combined the results of the 12 studies. (Meta-analysis research is a method which focuses on contrasting and combining results from a group of different studies). They found that spending too long in the office resulted in a 40 to 80 percent greater risk of heart disease compared to sticking to a normal eight hour day. In the studies where researchers closely monitored participants' working hours, (which is regarded as the most accurate method), this risk was found to be around 40 percent. Virtanen also found that the association between long hours of work and coronary heart disease was independent of a range of risk factors that were measured at the start of the study, such as smoking, being overweight, or having high cholesterol.

What are the causes of work related heart disease?

The research noted that there are several potential mechanisms that may underlie the association between long working hours and Cardiac Heart Disease. One potential mechanism is prolonged exposure to psychological stress. Prolonged stress levels can change the balance of chemical levels within the body which contribute to a variety of endocrine, metabolic, autoimmune, and psychiatric disorders, which in turn are themselves risk factors for Cardiac Heart Disease.

Other factors that may also be involved are:

  • lack of rest and poor unwind time
  • sleep deprivation
  • poor eating habits
  • reluctance to be absent from work despite illness (i.e. sickness presenteeism)
  • lack of physical activity due to limited leisure time

Ways to reduce the “long hours” work culture

In a report published by the UK Department of Trade and Industry, several highly successful English businesses were studied to find how they were effective at reducing the need for long work hours. One of their findings included having a reward system where innovation and the quality and quantity of work produced was rewarded, rather than for just the hours employees put in to the job.

Specific ways that an individual can reduce their hours of work are:

  • Question the need for scheduled meetings and if attendance is really necessary
  • Being firm about saying no to additional work, over and above the agreed levels
  • Gaining agreement of realistic time frames for each new work project
  • Working from home on occasions where there are (hopefully) less interruptions and no waste of commuting time
  • Not being be afraid to ask for help
  • Delegating work where possible
  • Discussing workloads with management at appraisal time

Still more research needed on risks of overtime work:

Virtanen says “our findings suggest a link between working long hours and increased Cardiac Heart Disease risk, but more research is needed before we can be confident that overtime work would cause Cardiac Heart Disease”.

In the meantime do try and limit your work to a healthy eight hours a day:

“Working hard and working smart sometimes can be two different things” (Byron Dorgan)


Ross Thomson, a Director of Joyworkz Ltd.


Department for Business Innovation and Skills. 2005. MANAGING CHANGE: Practical ways to reduce long hours and reform working practices. United Kingdom Government.

Virtanen, Dr. Marianna (2012) Long Working Hours and Coronary Heart Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 176, Issue 7, Pp. 586-596

Tips, training and resources

Staff training: Training for staff can motivating and help staff know that you care. Joyworkz offer a range of appropriate workplace wellness seminars such "Standing Up to Stress" and "Being a Happy Computer User" that assist staff to be healthy and happy at work.

A wellness programme: Consider a workplace health challenge to get employees moving. If you need help getting started designing a made to measure wellness programme, consider Joyworkz SimplyWell™ package, which takes the stress out of designing a workplace wellness programme.

Visual prompts: Visual prompts in the workplace can be useful. For instance, the range of free Alsco Heart Health posters that encourage staff in healthy workplace practices.

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