Avoid overworking employees to safeguard their health, bosses told

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PETALING JAYA: Two health experts have called for workplace policies to minimise overworking and mitigate its effects.

Speaking to FMT in the wake of a World Health Organization (WHO) report of deaths associated with long working hours, they said there appeared to be little awareness in Malaysia of the threat to health that overworking posed.

WHO said on Monday that working long hours was killing hundreds of thousands of people a year, with 745,000 dying from stroke and heart disease in 2016, up 30% from 2000.

Research from US-based security specialist Kisi released last December found Malaysia to be the fourth most overworked country among the 50 surveyed.

Even short spells of intense work could lead to serious health problems.

Dr Wong Teck Wee, a cardiologist and the president of the Malaysian Healthy Ageing Society

Speaking of a recent patient of his, he said: “He’s in his sixties and we found he had a very weak heart, but could not identify any of the usual root causes and he didn’t have any of the typical risk factors like smoking or drinking.

“Then we found that he was a contractor and had recently been asked to complete a big project in the space of one week and was only sleeping around two hours a night, which had put a lot of stress on his heart.”

This was treatable, Wong said, but he added that the damage was irreversible and the patient was left with an irregular heartbeat which increased his risk of suffering a stroke.

“Many countries in Asia, particularly China and Japan, have woken up to the threats posed by overworking,” he said.

“Some companies limit how much overtime workers can do or will play reminders over the announcement system to remind employees to go home.”

Dr Andrew Mohanraj, president of the Malaysian Mental Health Association, said mental health issues could arise from excessive work and could be a precursor to physical manifestations.

“Being overworked can take a toll on an employee’s mental health and can have persistent and long-term consequences like stress, anxiety and depression and, in severe cases, even suicidal tendencies,” he said.

“Psychological decompensation can lead to psychosomatic or non-specific complaints of aches and pains and frequent headaches.

“Worsening mental health can also lead to alcohol, nicotine and illicit substance abuse and even contribute to the development and worsening of cardiovascular problems.”

Mohanraj said employers should look at their workers’ wellbeing not only with their health in mind, but also as good business practice since mental issues could take their toll on productivity.

“One measure companies can take is to include mental health support in their panel clinic coverage,” he said. “And managers must have a clear understanding with employees on expected outcomes for tasks with realistic deadlines set to prevent unnecessary stress.”

Shamsuddin Bardan, executive director of the Malaysian Employers Federation, said some employers had already embraced strategies to help ease their workers’ burdens, such as teaching them to delegate their jobs, telling them to work more efficiently so they can reach their KPIs in a reasonable time, and instilling an organisational culture that would promote a healthy work-life balance.

“Some employers provide recreational facilities at the workplace to allow employees to relax and exercise during their break times. Some employees also enjoy company-funded gym memberships to enable them to exercise regularly,” he said.