The effect of exposure to long working hours on ischaemic heart disease: A systematic review and meta-analysis from the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-related Burden of Disease and Injury Journal Articles uri icon

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  • BACKGROUND: The World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) are developing Joint Estimates of the work-related burden of disease and injury (WHO/ILO Joint Estimates), with contributions from a large network of experts. Evidence from mechanistic data suggests that exposure to long working hours may cause ischaemic heart disease (IHD). In this paper, we present a systematic review and meta-analysis of parameters for estimating the number of deaths and disability-adjusted life years from IHD that are attributable to exposure to long working hours, for the development of the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates. OBJECTIVES: We aimed to systematically review and meta-analyse estimates of the effect of exposure to long working hours (three categories: 41-48, 49-54 and ≥55 h/week), compared with exposure to standard working hours (35-40 h/week), on IHD (three outcomes: prevalence, incidence and mortality). DATA SOURCES: We developed and published a protocol, applying the Navigation Guide as an organizing systematic review framework where feasible. We searched electronic databases for potentially relevant records from published and unpublished studies, including MEDLINE, Scopus, Web of Science, CISDOC, PsycINFO, and WHO ICTRP. We also searched grey literature databases, Internet search engines and organizational websites; hand-searched reference lists of previous systematic reviews; and consulted additional experts. STUDY ELIGIBILITY AND CRITERIA: We included working-age (≥15 years) workers in the formal and informal economy in any WHO and/or ILO Member State but excluded children (aged < 15 years) and unpaid domestic workers. We included randomized controlled trials, cohort studies, case-control studies and other non-randomized intervention studies which contained an estimate of the effect of exposure to long working hours (41-48, 49-54 and ≥55 h/week), compared with exposure to standard working hours (35-40 h/week), on IHD (prevalence, incidence or mortality). STUDY APPRAISAL AND SYNTHESIS METHODS: At least two review authors independently screened titles and abstracts against the eligibility criteria at a first stage and full texts of potentially eligible records at a second stage, followed by extraction of data from qualifying studies. Missing data were requested from principal study authors. We combined relative risks using random-effect meta-analysis. Two or more review authors assessed the risk of bias, quality of evidence and strength of evidence, using Navigation Guide and GRADE tools and approaches adapted to this project. RESULTS: Thirty-seven studies (26 prospective cohort studies and 11 case-control studies) met the inclusion criteria, comprising a total of 768,751 participants (310,954 females) in 13 countries in three WHO regions (Americas, Europe and Western Pacific). The exposure was measured using self-reports in all studies, and the outcome was assessed with administrative health records (30 studies) or self-reported physician diagnosis (7 studies). The outcome was defined as incident non-fatal IHD event in 19 studies (8 cohort studies, 11 case-control studies), incident fatal IHD event in two studies (both cohort studies), and incident non-fatal or fatal ("mixed") event in 16 studies (all cohort studies). Because we judged cohort studies to have a relatively lower risk of bias, we prioritized evidence from these studies and treated evidence from case-control studies as supporting evidence. For the bodies of evidence for both outcomes with any eligible studies (i.e. IHD incidence and mortality), we did not have serious concerns for risk of bias (at least for the cohort studies). No eligible study was found on the effect of long working hours on IHD prevalence. Compared with working 35-40 h/week, we are uncertain about the effect on acquiring (or incidence of) IHD of working 41-48 h/week (relative risk (RR) 0.98, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.91 to 1.07, 20 studies, 312,209 participants, I2 0%, low quality of evidence) and 49-54 h/week (RR 1.05, 95% CI 0.94 to 1.17, 18 studies, 308,405 participants, I2 0%, low quality of evidence). Compared with working 35-40 h/week, working ≥55 h/week may have led to a moderately, clinically meaningful increase in the risk of acquiring IHD, when followed up between one year and 20 years (RR 1.13, 95% CI 1.02 to 1.26, 22 studies, 339,680 participants, I2 5%, moderate quality of evidence). Compared with working 35-40 h/week, we are very uncertain about the effect on dying (mortality) from IHD of working 41-48 h/week (RR 0.99, 95% CI 0.88 to 1.12, 13 studies, 288,278 participants, I2 8%, low quality of evidence) and 49-54 h/week (RR 1.01, 95% CI 0.82 to 1.25, 11 studies, 284,474 participants, I2 13%, low quality of evidence). Compared with working 35-40 h/week, working ≥55 h/week may have led to a moderate, clinically meaningful increase in the risk of dying from IHD when followed up between eight and 30 years (RR 1.17, 95% CI 1.05 to 1.31, 16 studies, 726,803 participants, I2 0%, moderate quality of evidence). Subgroup analyses found no evidence for differences by WHO region and sex, but RRs were higher among persons with lower SES. Sensitivity analyses found no differences by outcome definition (exclusively non-fatal or fatal versus "mixed"), outcome measurement (health records versus self-reports) and risk of bias ("high"/"probably high" ratings in any domain versus "low"/"probably low" in all domains). CONCLUSIONS: We judged the existing bodies of evidence for human evidence as "inadequate evidence for harmfulness" for the exposure categories 41-48 and 49-54 h/week for IHD prevalence, incidence and mortality, and for the exposure category ≥55 h/week for IHD prevalence. Evidence on exposure to working ≥55 h/week was judged as "sufficient evidence of harmfulness" for IHD incidence and mortality. Producing estimates for the burden of IHD attributable to exposure to working ≥55 h/week appears evidence-based, and the pooled effect estimates presented in this systematic review could be used as input data for the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates.


  • Li, Jian
  • Pega, Frank
  • Ujita, Yuka
  • Brisson, Chantal
  • Clays, Els
  • Descatha, Alexis
  • Ferrario, Marco M
  • Godderis, Lode
  • Iavicoli, Sergio
  • Landsbergis, Paul A
  • Metzendorf, Maria-Inti
  • Morgan, Rebecca
  • Pachito, Daniela V
  • Pikhart, Hynek
  • Richter, Bernd
  • Roncaioli, Mattia
  • Rugulies, Reiner
  • Schnall, Peter L
  • Sembajwe, Grace
  • Trudel, Xavier
  • Tsutsumi, Akizumi
  • Woodruff, Tracey J
  • Siegrist, Johannes

publication date

  • September 2020