Working 55 hours or more per week increases your risk of deadly heart disease and strokes.

It’s no secret that long working hours can trigger stress, anxiety and sleepless nights, but did you know it can also kill?

According to recent estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO), long working hours – defined as more than 55 hours of work per week – are linked with a 35% higher risk of dying from a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from stroke heart disease. There were over 740,000 deaths from stroke and heart disease worldwide due to long working hours in 2016; an increase of 29% in mortality rates due to this condition.

This is especially worrying for adult Singaporean men, not only because Singapore is ranked the second most overworked country globally, but also because men and middle-aged workers who have worked more than 55 hours per week for over a decade are most at risk.

Impact of long working hours on heart health

Dr Rohit Khurana, from the Harley Street Heart and Vascular Centre, reveals that long working hours impact heart health through physiological, and behavioural responses to stress.

“The physiological or psychological response to stress, known as the fight of flight mechanism, is activated through the release of cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones increase your blood pressure, breathing and blood sugars to help you deal with stressful situations effectively.”

“Back when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, this response was vital as it increased their strength, energy and alertness to stave off rivals or run from predators. But once these threats passed, cortisol and adrenaline levels returned to normal, as did breathing and heart rates,” Dr Khurana says.

“In today’s world however, perceived threats persist. Whether it’s the stress from living with  Covid-19 or having video calls round the clock, stress is almost constant, potentially keeping cortisol levels and blood pressure high for days, weeks or even months. This persistent elevation in blood pressure can result in the narrowing of the artery walls which may lead to heart attacks and/or strokes.”

“Additionally, people may develop bad habits to cope with stress, such as smoking, binge drinking and snacking on crisps and candy. While these may seem to help you relax after a long day, they actually work against you by increasing your risk of heart attacks, atrial fibrillation, and strokes.”

It appears the greater the stress, the greater the likelihood of developing bad habits and the lower the likelihood of embracing healthy ones. Studies show that men are twice as likely to smoke if they work more than 50 hours a week, while those who work more than 48 hours a week are 13% more likely to binge drink than those working 40 hours or less.

Other research has also found that individuals who work an extra 10 hours per week are 50% more likely to experience less sleep, while those who clock in over 60 hours per week are 6% to 11% less likely to exercise as effectively as those working less than 40 hours a week.

How Covid-19 increases the risk of heart conditions

In Dr Khurana’s practice, individuals who present with heart conditions from working long hours are senior executives who have clients and/or colleagues across continents. Working through different time zones was challenging enough pre-pandemic, but Covid-19 has created a work from home (WFH) culture that makes disconnecting from work even more difficult.

Many executives are in fact working longer hours from home than they did in their offices because clients and/or colleagues across the globe also work from home and are likely to ask for video calls and for work to be submitted at times convenient for them.

Thanks to WFH, people prefer to order in instead of preparing their own meals or dining out, and not have regular mealtimes. When ordering in, they also tend to choose food with high fat, salt and refined sugar content, which could promote weight gain with a sedentary lifestyle, and increase the risk of hypertension and diabetes.

“Unfortunately, the ones who succumb to heart conditions are those with added risk factors such as a family history of heart disease and chronic smokers,” cautions Dr Khurana.

Dr Rohit Khurana, cardiologist and heart specialist from the Harley Street Heart and Vascular Centre

When avoiding work is not an option

Although long working hours increases the risk of cardiovascular problems, for most people it is impossible to avoid work completely. This is why Dr Khurana suggests implementing various heart-healthy and stress-relieving practices at home. These include:

Setting boundaries: Try working in a separate space from where you spend leisure time as it may be difficult to relax in spaces your brain subconsciously recognises as an office. You should also learn to allow yourself breaks, and not mix family and self-care time with work.

Practising healthy choices: Managing stress through healthy habits not only reduces the risk of heart conditions but can also relax and fulfill you. In addition to self-care, such as reading a good book or getting a massage, consume a Mediterranean Diet rich in  vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts, whole grains and fish, doing at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, and going to bed and waking up at a regular times.

Reducing work hours: Limit work hours to 40 hours a week or less, if possible. If not, ensure you take short breaks throughout the day. Stepping away from your workstation for a brisk walk around the block for even a few minutes can help you manage stress and anxiety.

Featured photo by Dreamstime.
Dr Rohit Khurana photo courtesy of Harley Street Heart and Vascular Centre