Author Bio ▼

Dr Nick Bell is a Chartered Fellow of IOSH and a Fellow of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management. Nick supports Principal Designers and construction Clients to comply with the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM). He delivers accredited CDM training and has been advising on construction projects up to £3.2bn in value.. In October 2018 Nick successfully defended his PhD thesis in which he examined the association between worker engagement and behaviour.  His work has attracted interest from across the globe.  He is now Managing Director of Workfulness Ltd and continues his CDM-related work.
May 19, 2021

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Long working hours

Long working hours: ‘745,000 deaths are the tip of the iceberg’

The World Health Organization has recently drawn attention to research which estimated that 745,000 people died globally in 2016 due to health conditions (such as stroke and heart disease) associated with long working hours. Dr Nick Bell discusses the implications and the likelihood that this is a significant underestimation of the harm caused by long working hours.

home workerThe harmful impact of long working hours has been acknowledged by the health and safety community for many years. The Health and Safety Executive highlights the link between fatigue and ill-health, and has provided guidance for employers. SHP has also given insights into how and why fatigue, and issues such as sleep deprivation, should be managed in the workplace.

Research published in Environment International on 17 May 2021 found that nearly ¾ million people are dying each year from health conditions associated with working 55 hours a week or more. While shocking in itself, this is very likely to be a gross underestimation of the harm being caused.

The HSE explains that other impacts of excessive demands could include feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. The impact of these conditions on individuals and the wider UK economy is revealed in HSE statistics and reports. 828,000 workers are suffering from work-related stress, anxiety and depression, and they lead to the loss of nearly 18 million working days each year. Potentially, this could lead to self-harm. In Japan, the term ‘Karoshi’ describes a situation in which long working hours has led to a health-related fatality or death due to a starvation diet or suicide.

Research by the International Labour Organisation found associations between fatigue and involvement in workplace accidents. ROSPA suggests that fatigue is a contributory factor in up to 20% of road accidents and up to 20% of serious and fatal accidents.

Practical guidance

For many health and safety practitioners, a logical starting point could be to ensure that the HSE’s stress management standards are being effectively applied. I am, however, routinely supporting organisations whose human resources team have never heard of these standards or understand the need for or benefit of an organisational stress risk assessment.

The final version of ISO 45003, the first global standard giving practical guidance on managing psychological health in the workplace, is due to be released in Summer 2021. Its release could at least prompt discussions, even if the standard is not formally adopted.

There is also a plethora of guidance, as mentioned earlier, for organisations who want to manage working hours and fatigue.

However, health and safety professionals who are looking to address these issues will need to carefully consider and contend with organisational values and culture. In March 2021, the Guardian reported on a global financial organisation with “inhuman” working conditions, including working long hours in a high pressure culture, impacting on the mental and physical health of workers.

A shift in mindset

Recently, Louise Hosking wrote about the importance of human capital to the success of organisation, which involves valuing and nurturing the knowledge and experience of workers. Relatively enlightened organisations may appreciate the many benefits of humane and worker-centric employment practices. Hosking argues that health and safety professionals can help make these arguments: rather than simply discussing the risks of not managing fatigue, we can highlight the benefits of allowing our workers to flourish.

When workers feel well and respected, they are likely to become “engaged” and feel motivated, loyal to the organisation and able to apply themselves fully to their role (and/or adopt more discretionary and proactive behaviours). A recent systematic review built on an existing body of evidence about these associations. My PhD revealed that this process relies on understanding and meeting the needs of workers, a concept which Saks (2021) describes as ‘caring human resources management’.

Hosking also emphasises how health and safety professionals can help to create a narrative which describes workers as assets.  As a simple example, we could easily emphasise how the success of certain initiatives or projects has been the result of collaboration with workers, and highlight some specific contributions.

Wrapping up

Our profession has long known about the damage caused by long working hours and fatigue, and the recent WHO article may act as a tragic reminder that we need to tackle these issues. There are practical tools available, but it can be a trickier issue encouraging organisations to walk the path. It is important that we highlight the risks of failing to manage risks effectively. However, a more powerful argument may be that our organisations will be able to thrive when we help workers to flourish and perform at their best.

Workplace Wellbeing Conference

Hear RoSPA’s Policy Advisor, Karen McDonnell, speak about ‘Getting your message heard and increasing your visibility,’ and sleep expert Marcus de Guingand suggest some pitfalls and helpful hits for tackling fatigue in staff at the Workplace Wellbeing Conference, from 1-3 June 2021.

Other speakers include former No. 10 director of communications and strategy Alastair Campbell; astronaut Major Tim Peake; Mind CEO Paul Farmer; Olympic gold medallist Amy Williams; award-winning campaigner Tom Dunning; HSE Principal Human Factors Specialist Phoebe Smith; and many more.

Tickets to the conference are £120 + VAT, with 20% of the ticket price donated to conference charity partner, Mind.

Click here to see the full Workplace Wellbeing Conference agenda.

Click here for more information and to purchase your ticket.

The Workplace Wellbeing Virtual Conference is part of a month-long virtual event called Connect, which includes the virtual Safety & Health Expo and Workplace Wellbeing Show exhibitions. The conference, which kicks off Connect, takes place from 1 – 3 June and will be available on-demand until the end of July. Connect is free to attend and tickets for the conference are priced at £120. 20% of the ticket price is donated to our charity partner Mind.

READ: SHP’s guide to home working.


Work-related stress podcast

Hear from Peter Kelly, Senior Psychologist for the Health and Safety Executive about work-related stress and Inspector Phil Spencer, Blue Light Programme Co-ordinator at Cleveland Police, discusses the stress of working on the frontline during the pandemic.

Subscribe and tune in the Safety & Health Podcast to discover the latest issues facing the health and safety profession, and stay on-top of the developments affecting your role, from working at height, lone working and common workplace hazards, to safety culture, behaviours, occupational health and mental health and wellbeing.

Connect 2021 – Workplace Wellbeing Conference

As part of our online event Connect 2021, running from 1-30 June, the Workplace Wellbeing Conference will feature three, full days of in-depth presentations, panels & interviews with leading experts in workplace wellbeing. The conference is designed for anyone involved in wellbeing initiatives within their organisation as well as anyone looking to support their own wellbeing or the wellbeing of others.

Speakers include former No. 10 director of communications and strategy Alastair Campbell; astronaut Major Tim Peake; Mind CEO Paul Farmer; Olympic gold medallist Amy Williams; award-winning campaigner Tom Dunning; HSE Principal Human Factors Specialist Phoebe Smith; and many more.

Tickets to the conference are £120 + VAT, with 20% of the ticket price  donated to conference charity partner, Mind.

The conference takes place from 1-3 June 2021.

Alastair Campbell

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