Consistently working long hours is detrimental to your health and connected to a higher risk of developing fatal or disabiling ischemic heart disease or stroke, according to a study recently published by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO).
What’s more, across the globe, the number of people who are working long hours (55+ hours per week) has increased from 2000-2016. As of 2016, nearly 9% of the world’s population were consistently working more than 55 hours per week.
The study further compared the risks of developing ischemic heart disease or stroke between people who work 35-40 hours per week versus those who work 55 hours per week over the time span of 2000-2016. When compared to 2000, the WHO and ILO analysis identified a 42% increase in deaths from ischemic heart disease and a 19% increase in deaths from stroke amongst those working more than 55 hrs per week by the year 2016.
There are different, indirect pathways in which overworking impacts our cardiovascular health, says Danielle Henkel, MD, a cardiologist at Loma Linda University International Heart Institute. She breaks them down into two categories:
- Physiologic responses occur when you experience stress during work and your body initiates a primal fight or flight response. It ushers forth a surge of stress hormones — such as adrenaline — that increases heart rate, blood pressure, and even breathing rate.
- Those responses can increase tension on and subsequently damage to the inner lining of our body’s arteries — from the largest arteries to microscopic capillaries. Your body, sensing this disturbance, will attempt to repair any microdamage from shear stress by mounting an inflammatory response.
- This series of events, stretched over long periods, tends to underlie the development of atherosclerosis — a combination of inflammatory cells and fats become deposited in the wall of an artery and create a plaque. The accumulation of too much plaque in the artery walls over time can cause heart attack or stroke by either progressively limiting blood flow in the artery or by triggering an abrupt clot to form in the artery.
- Behavioral responses often co-exist with physiologic responses. Most people tend to behave differently when under stress.
- We might resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms like smoking or drinking alcohol. Pressed for time, we may skip exercise and opt for fast food over a healthy yet time-consuming home-cooked meal. Additionally, we may allot less time toward sleep and experience diminished sleep quality when we finally do.
- All of these factors add up to place strain on the body. The cumulative burden of unhealthy habits over time may lead to disease in the body’s arteries.
While the study’s impressive pooling of global data about work-related disease burden lends national and international organizations valuable insights for policy-making, Henkel delineates ways that we as individuals can also pro-actively protect our hearts’ health daily:
- Set boundaries: Whether physical or invisible, set boundaries between work and leisure time. To the best of your ability, be mindful in recognizing when you’re at work and when you can take a break to engage in self-care. If you have the capacity to set physical boundaries, work in a space that is separate from where you spend your leisure time. Invisible or mental boundaries require you to determine with intention when you do and do not work — for instance, making an effort not to mix family or self-care time with work.
- Self-care: Exercise, set aside enough time for quality sleep, eat healthy meals, and engage in activities that relax or fulfill you. To learn more about heart health, sign up for heart health emails and visit lluh.org/heart-vascular/our-services/adult-cardiology/heart-health-education.
- Limit your total hours: Build breaks into your schedule throughout the workday. Setting timers or reminders on your phone or even making a mental note to stretch, drink water, and walk away from your workstation a handful of times throughout the workday can make all the difference by lowering stress levels.