Working 9 ‘til 5…or 6? Or 7? Or 8?

Blog posts

25 May 2021

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Senior Research Fellow 

Over the past twelve months, how many of you have found yourselves working that little bit longer each day, having trouble switching off or finding it more difficult to address that work-life boundary?  More importantly how many of you have thought about the implications of this for your health and wellbeing?

A new report from the World Health Organistaion and the International Labour Organisation highlighted the physical toll that long working hours can have on the human body.  The results found that:

  • Long working hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 20% increase since the year 2000.
  • In 2016, 398,000 people died from a stroke and 347,000 from heart disease as a result from having worked at least 55 hours a week.
  • Between the years 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease due to working long hours increased by 42% and from stroke by 19%.
  • Working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of stroke and 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease compared to working 35-40 hours a week.
  • The number of people working long hours is increasing, and currently stands at 9% of the total population globally.

The research looked at data from before the Covid-19 pandemic, but there are concerns that the change in working practices that have occurred because of Covid-19 could accelerate trends that could increase working time.  Our IES homeworker wellbeing survey provided evidence to suggest that early on in the pandemic employees had fallen into the over-working trap when working from home.  For example, 46% of the sample reported working between 1-10 hours more that their contracted working hours, and 15% indicated that they were working in excess of 10 hours or more.    Those who did work longer than their contracted hours also reported lower organisational commitment, work-life balance and job satisfaction.  Concerningly, respondents to the survey also reported physical health implications from working from home, including musculoskeletal discomfort, and migraines, heartburn, chest pains and leg cramps were reported ‘more or much more’ than usual.

When looking at the written responses to the survey, we were provided with some reasons to suggest why this could be happening.  One respondent commented: “Shutting off is difficult.  Having my computer sitting on my dining room table makes it feel like I can’t leave work even when I shut it.   I feel like I have to be available 100% during my working hours and so I am not taking proper breaks.”   Not being able to shut-off was common but another theme was starting earlier, “I am working longer hours, I start earlier in the morning when I would have been commuting, and then I am so consumed in work that I don’t switch off until a couple of hours after normal time.”  Another said, “My technology at home is not as good when in the office so everything takes longer and so I am working longer.” 

Although autonomy in when and where you worked was often offered as a benefit to remote working, respondents also provided evidence to suggest that this led to guilt and feeling that they always ‘had’ to be on: “I feel guilty, I worry that people will think that I am not working, so I need to be on the headset to  be there to answer a call when it flashes on the screen.” 

So what can be done?

The ILO suggest that governments can introduce, implement and enforce laws, regulations and policies that ban mandatory overtime and ensure maximum limits on working time.  Some countries have already tried to introduce such methods.  For example, France had the ‘right to disconnect’, where engineers and consulting workers no longer have to answer work phone calls or emails after 6pm, as there was the recognition that the development of smart-technology was blurring the work-life distinction.  A similar initiative is also now being discussed in the Netherlands following evidence that during the pandemic the dividing line between work and private lives has been eroded.

Some organisations have tried a more proactive approach. Volkswagen took steps to improve the work-life balance of their staff by turning off Blackberry email after work hours, as a result of complaints from staff that their work and home lives were becoming blurred.  Although a very interesting (and very comment-provoking) initiative, the blame seems to be inherently on smartphone technology and not the people sending the emails! 

The ILO also suggested that agreements could be made so that employees can have flexible working arrangements but with an agreed number of working hours.  This is where I think that organisations and managers at all levels need to set out clearly what they expect from their employees.  If there is the expectation that any employee, working from home, or working flexibly can be contacted at all times and, crucially, is expected to respond, then this unhealthy. Such policies mean people feel pressured to work after hours, reducing their work-life balance and increasing their stress.  Not unsurprisingly, work productivity will also suffer, as an employee with poor health and wellbeing may be unable to concentrate on a task that they have been allocated to complete, they may take longer to finish tasks, and what they produce may be of lesser quality than that of a healthy employee.  These employees may also be less likely to cope with changes in the workplace and keep up with the pace of work.

For organisations where there is the expectation that individuals may have to work overtime on occasion, there is a need to develop ‘good work’ practices, this could therefore mean that employers should be prepared to offer flexible work practices, or time off in lieu, to prevent the increased risk of stressed employees and burnout.

The culture of working longer hours is not new but should no longer be ignored by employers, especially if workplace flexibility and hybrid working patterns become more popular as organisations emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic .  If employee health and wellbeing really is a central pillar of how organisations work, now is the time that we start focussing on a hidden, yet widespread health hazard. Current working trends are putting more employees at risk, which, with effective planning, management and understanding, could be reversed, potentially saving lives in the process.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.