The study, published in August, found those who worked 55 hours a week or more saw a 33 percent increase in the risk of stroke and 13 percent increase in the risk of coronary heart disease, compared with those who worked 35-40 hours a week.
“These findings suggest that more attention should be paid to the management of vascular risk factors in individuals who work long hours,” the study’s authors wrote.
But there’s more to the story than meets the eye, said Lewis Kuller, emeritus professor and past chair of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health.
He notes that the study, which analyzed published and unpublished data for more than 600,000 individuals in the United States, Europe and Australia, doesn’t show the same impact of long hours on those in higher socio-economic brackets.
“Low income people generally have a much higher risk of cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Kuller said. “They work longer hours to survive and provide for their families.”
They’re also more likely to be smokers and have other health risks, including high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity. And if someone is working long hours or more than one job, that person is also more likely to get a quick snack or pop from a vending machine — loaded with sugar and salt — than a healthier meal, he said.
“People who work long hours are tired and are less likely to remember to take their medication on a regular basis and exercise; and, perhaps on their off time, do things that are not conducive to good health,” he added.
Too much work is better than no work at all, Dr. Kuller said, adding that those who are unemployed tend to have even higher risk to their wellness than those who are working.
“The stress of working long hours is not the major determinant here,” he said. “If so, you’d see it across all income levels.”
Dr. Kuller said it’s critical for those who do work long hours to set aside time to get an adequate evaluation of their health status and risk factors so they can prevent major health problems and better provide for themselves and their families.
Companies should also encourage ways for employees to have access to adequate medical care and prevention, as well as access to better food and drink options, since processed foods and sugary drinks also increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart risks.