The large study published this week in the Lancet Medical Journal studied up to 603,838 individuals and found those that worked past a 40 hour work week faced increased health risks.
And there was a 33 percent increased risk of stroke for workers who spend more than 55 hours a week at the office, even after controlling for certain behavioral risks such as smoking and alcohol consumption, according to researchers at University College London and Umeå University in Sweden who looked that people chosen from largely the same pool of study subjects.
For worker bees who spend extra hours on the job, the longer an employee worked past the 40-hour mark, the more they faced an increased risk for stroke or other cardiac events, the study found. People working just a few extra hours a week, between 41 and 48 hours per week, had a 10 percent higher risk of stroke, researchers found, and those working 49 to 54 hours had a 27 percent increased risk of stroke.
The findings are important to help employees and employers understand how long hours and stress can take a physical toll and on the workforce, experts said.
Dr. Roy Buchinsky, director of wellness at University Hospitals Case Medical Center and who was not involved in the study, said the findings may help people be less complacent about looking after their health when spending long hours in a stressful environment.
Nearly every workplace involves stressful situations that can harm the body over time, Buchinsky noted.
"Cortisol [a hormone linked to stress] goes up and the big thing that happens is increased inflammation," said Buchinksy, who said it can result in narrowing of arterial walls or blood vessels.
While the health consequences of a long work week are serious, Buchinsky said there are simple steps any office worker can take to decrease the harmful effects of stress.
"Move around. If you’re on the phone at work, stand up. The key is to get the person up and about," said Buchinsky who recommends getting up for one to two minutes every half hour.
He also noted it's important to try and lower stress by taking deep breaths, meditating or simply going for walk.
"You count to four and breathe out to four and do that four times," Buchinksy said. "You reset [the] body's cortisol level and lower stress level."
Buchinsky said it's key that both employees and employers take stock of how people are spending their time in order to be productive and healthy workforce.
"It’s not so much the hours. It’s how are we spending our time during those hours," Buchinksy said. "People are being asked to do more with less resources."