It is undeniable that workers in Taiwan work excessively long hours. In 2014, Taiwanese worked an average of 2,134.8 hours a year — the third-most in the world and much more than the average 1,766 work hours per year among member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The main reason Taiwanese work such long hours and even volunteer for overtime is, for the most part, because employers have pushed basic salaries so low that many can only make ends with overtime.
While employers advocate flexible work hours to meet their market needs, employees’ need for rest should not be ignored. More consideration should be given to the health effects of long work hours and flexible work schedules.
Work requires a high degree of concentration, which stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, causing the blood pressure of people at work to be higher than when they are resting. When our medical team monitored the blood pressure and heart rate of Intensive Care Unit nurses over 24-hour periods, we found that, compared with their average blood pressure on a rest day, their systolic blood pressure was 12 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) higher when they were at work, and their diastolic blood pressure was 9mmHg higher.
The human heart contracts at least 100,000 times per day, pumping blood to every part of the body. High blood pressure means that the heart has to exert more force with every beat, which increases the tendency for the heart and blood vessels to become aged and hardened.
Another study we did that entailed monitoring blood pressure over 24-hour periods showed that, after controlling for gender, age, body mass index, diabetes, hyperlipidemia and high blood pressure, the higher people’s average blood pressure is over 24 hours, the worse their carotid arteries tend to be affected by atherosclerosis, which leads to a higher risk of stroke.
It also showed that the hearts of people working night shifts have to work harder than those working day shifts, and their systolic blood pressure during sleep is 5mmHg higher than it would normally be. Night work also often leads to sleep disorders, fatigue and other problems.
Research results published in The Lancet last year show that working long hours (more than 55 hours a week) increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease by 13 percent and that of having a stroke by 33 percent.
Shift work, night shifts and long work hours also make people more prone to accidents and wrong decisions. The purpose of the US’ limits on the number of hours physicians can work without a break is to uphold the quality of treatment and ensure patients’ safety.
Arguments over the proposed “one fixed day off and one flexible rest day per week” system should return to safeguarding occupational health, which is in the interest of employers and employees. No amount of overtime pay can undo the cardiovascular damage and ageing that can result from overwork.
If somebody dies from overwork, a company’s business and production processes will suffer badly. So, if employers and employees manage to agree on the need for workers to do overtime on rest days, they should also work out a system not just for the overtime, but to provide adequate compensatory rest.
The Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法) should be amended to set limits on shift and night work hours and provide workers with sufficient time to rest.
Chang Heng-hao is a resident at National Cheng Kung University Hospital’s occupational and environmental medicine department. Wang Jung-der is a chair professor at the university’s College of Medicine and a staff physician at the hospital.
Translated by Yu-an Tu and Julian Clegg
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