In the first global study of its kind, research showed that 745,000 people died from stroke and heart attack associated with long working hours in 2016.
Many Londoners have become accustomed to sitting for hours at their work desk and tapping away at the keyboard for hours on end, notwithstanding the current working-from-home trend brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
However the worsening trend has serious health hazards with a ‘death toll’ that has increased by almost 30% in the last two decades.
Worse still, figures could accelerate further due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the WHO said.
Working 55 hours or more per week is linked to a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease, according to the report.
This is compared with a 35-40 hour working week.
People living in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific region, including China, Japan and Australia, were most affected, findings show.
“What we want to do with this information is promote more action, more protection of workers,” said Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health.
The study, conducted with the International Labour Organization, looked at data from 194 countries.
It showed that most victims, 72%, were men and were middle-aged or older.
Often, the deaths occurred much later in life, sometimes decades later, than the shifts worked.
The study covered the period 2000 to 2016, and so did not include the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, WHO officials said the resulting surge in remote working and the global economic slowdown may have increased the risks.
“The pandemic is accelerating developments that could feed the trend towards increased working time,” the WHO said, estimating that at least 9% of people work long hours.
Previous studies have shown that employees who work from home are facing bigger workloads and spending longer at their desks than before the pandemic.
Furthermore, official figures showed in April that more people worked from home in London than any other part of the country during the pandemic.
A survey by the Office for National Statistics found that 43 per cent of Londoners performed their job from home and that people working from home tend to put in longer hours.
WHO staff say they have been working long hours during the pandemic and that the UN agency would seek to improve its policy in light of the study.
Capping hours would be beneficial for employers since that has been shown to increase worker productivity, WHO technical officer Frank Pega said.
“It’s really a smart choice not to increase long working hours in an economic crisis.”