Hazards 49 Winter 1994/5 - Centrepages

In November 1994 a social worker made legal history when a High Court judge held his employer liable for a nervous breakdown which ended his career. UNISON member, John Walker, 57, is the first employee in Britain to sue an employer successfully for stress from overwork.

Mr Justice Colman ruled that Northumberland County Council was liable for damages because of its unreasonable failure to provide a safe system of work. UNISON is seeking a 200,000 compensation settlement for Mr Walker, who said his employer had subjected him to "an impossible workload". Northumberland Council says it intends to appeal the judgement.

Hazards asked the government safety watchdog, the Health and Safety Executive, for its comments on the settlement: "As far as we are concerned we do not consider overwork and long hours a health and safety issue," said HSE spokesman Phil Dent.

Department of Employment figures for 1992 reveal the hours of overtime worked to be the equivalent of two million full-time jobs. Nearly 50 per cent of the British workforce report coming home exhausted, compared with 36 per cent in the US and 17 per cent in the Netherlands.

Time in Britain

Figures published by the European Commission in September 1994 show that over the last ten years, working hours for men and women in Europe have fallen by one or two hours a week - except in the UK, where the numbers of men and women working long hours rose.

More than a quarter of British men employed in industry and services work more than 48 hours per week, by far the highest figure in Europe.

Between 1983 and 1992 the proportion of men in the UK working more than 48 hours a week rose from 22 per cent to 28 per cent. Three in five work Saturdays and two out of five Sundays "usually or sometimes". British men are spending longer hours and more weekends at work and have less time to recover from work and to spend with their families.

For women the position is polarised - the ones working long hours work very long hours, with the proportion working 45 hours up from six to nine per cent. For the remainder, only Dutch women work fewer hours.

Only 14 per cent of women in the UK worked full time in 1992. "Unions must break the culture of working long hours," says Jane Paul, health, safety and equality officer with the media union BECTU. "Otherwise we will continue to move towards a labour force consisting of four groups of workers: a core of intensively overworked employees; a periphery of part-time casual workers; an informal labour market of people with three jobs to make ends meet; and the unpaid volunteers and domestic workers."

Overwork kills

• In January 1994 Dr Alan Massie, 27, dropped dead shortly after completing an 86-hour week at Warrington District General Hospital. According to reports he had worked seven of the previous eight days and three nights, including unbroken spells of 27 hours and 24 hours.

• In March 1994 Joan Simmonds blamed pressure of work for the suicide of her husband, Joseph. She said the 50-year old Wolverhampton teacher had taken two weeks off work with depression earlier in the month but had returned to face a large backlog. "They increased his workload but never his pay, and he used to work all hours sent just to keep up with demands."

• In May 1994 British Airways pilot David Robertson, 52, died in the first in-flight fatality in the airline's history. Work stress and long working hours have been implicated in this and other pilot deaths. Flight Safety Digest reported their chances of dying in their sixties is twice as high as that of other men.

Leading industrial psychologists Dr Jenny Cozens of Leeds University and Professor Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology have already warned that "over-employment" is set to become a major problem.

In the US commentators have predicted that in three to four years' time, half as many people will be working twice as hard and will produce three times as much. (1)


A research paper, Overwork and health disorders (2), published by the Japanese Institute of the Economic Planning Agency in January 1994, included a useful classification of related diseases:

1. Karoshi the most serious condition, is described as "psychologically unsound work": overwork causes fatigue, an increase in blood pressure, hardening of the arteries and finally death from strokes or heart problems, mainly among middle-aged men. Since 1987 the Japanese government has paid state compensation to the family of victims, averaging 30 payouts each year. One source puts the real annual toll in Japan at 10,000 cases (3).

On 18 June 1994 - Father's Day in Japan - Japanese Karoshi campaigners set up a Karoshi hotline. It received 181 calls. In 41 cases, the family were seeking compensation advice following a Karoshi death. In November 1994, Tsubakmoto Precision Products paid an out-of-court settlement of £340,000 to the family of of Karoshi victim Satoru Hiroaka, who died of heart failure aged 48. His family said he had worked 71 hours a week and died in 1988 after working for 51 straight days.

2. Mental disorders and stress, which also weaken the body, for example, the immune system. "Job burnout" - where a worker is emotionally exhausted, disinterested and irritable, could fit into this category.

3. "Half healthy condition", when workers feel tired all the time (TATT - see Hazards 45). French union CGT estimated 78 per cent of workers suffered from tiredness all the time; 22 per cent still had not recovered when they returned from a holiday.

The paper points to research showing:

• When working days are longer than 10 hours, fatigue lasts into the next day;
• When more than 40 hours of overtime are worked per month, there is a sharp increase in the number of workers who complain of tiredness;
• The people who have died of Karoshi often worked more than 3,000 hours per year, more than twice the number of hours in a basic 35 working week.

Long hours leave a worker not just tired, but exhausted, low and at greater risk from other hazards - noise, chemical or extremes of temperature.


Studies of working hours during the first and second World Wars showed a link between long shifts, overtime working and an absence of rest breaks and increased accident rates (4,5). More recent studies link stress with long hours of work (6,7). Other research shows a fall in work output during longer shifts (8) and, again, rising accident rates9,10. Reduced alertness (11,12,13), greater fatigue and sleep loss14 have also been reported after a switch to 12 hour shifts.

Overtime monitored

A study by the Institute of Psychology in Stockholm found overtime damages the physical, psychological and social well-being of workers, even where the workers willing took on the extra work. The workers, members of Swedish union SIF, were employed by the electronics firm Ericcson. Before agreeing to a heavy work programme their union demanded and management agreed that the health effects of the overtime work should be monitored.

The researchers found high levels of adrenaline, blood fats and slightly elevated blood pressure in the workforce. Maria Sokolowski of SIF concluded the workers "were experiencing a permanent condition of stress, which did not go away even a vacation of four weeks. After what might be considered a proper rest they still felt worn out, irritated and in a bad mood. The physical condition of the employees was much poorer now than at the beginning of the project.

"We now know that overtime during a continuously long period of time affects the efficiency, well-being, level of stress and social life of employees." The changes identified suggest a real risk of long term health problems, particularly stress related heart disease. Very little work has been undertaken on overwork and chronic health problems.

Union concern

In the UK, university and college lecturers are facing intolerable levels of work, according to trade union reports. An October 1994 report from the Association of University Teachers (AUT) warned they are being "tested to destruction" by long hours. And a survey by university and college union NATFHE concluded lecturers were being driven to the verge of nervous breakdown by stress, overwork and uncertainty - nearly eight out of 10 said stress levels were unacceptable and one in four said they had taken time off with stress.

A May 1994 survey of 6,500 members by public sector union UNISON found they were "demoralised and pessimistic". More than one in five (22 per cent) said they were expected to work unpaid overtime of up to 20 hours per week. More than a third said they had suffered from work related health problems, with increased workloads the main cause identified.

And a 1994 survey of British Telecom staff by the union STE revealed over half suffered work-related stress. There was a clear relationship between number of hours worked and stress symptoms. Over 80 per cent routinely worked unpaid overtime.

Transport workers are also at risk. Ships' officers union NUMAST say "scandalous hours" have contributed to soaring numbers of seafarers failing medical examinations on psychiatric grounds. And a September 1994 report (15) from the T&G points to the effects of increasing workloads: "All the indications suggest that fatigue related accidents are on the increase... we know only too well how worried drivers themselves are about the excessive hours they are being asked to work." Bus drivers are now doing 60 per cent more overtime than the average manual worker, goods drivers double.

Annual hours

Annual hours systems have primarily been introduced to create flexibility for the employer, to fit in with seasonal working patterns. Many firms demand a kind of flexibility which makes family life impossible. So although annual hours systems often include a shorter working week, they often include 12 hour shifts, more night work and six or more days in a row.

A glass works introduced annual hours during the winter months, four twelve hour shifts - two days, two nights - followed by six days off. So far, so good. But in the summer months from May to October, hours were much less easy; six twelve hour shifts - three days, three nights - followed by just four days off. In September 1994 two workers were dismissed for sleeping on night shift. One man, working alone on a twelve hour night shift, had a heart attack and died before anyone found him at shift change in the morning.

Official advice on fatigue

The Health and Safety Executive has recently admitted "fatigue can be insidious". This is not a major plank of HSE policy; on several occasions HSE has refused to discuss working hours with Hazards, saying it is not a health and safety issue. HSE is scared of stepping on the government's toes and casting doubt on its legal challenge to the EC Working Time directive. Instead this insight is relegated to a pretty anonymous advice sheet on Fatigue in Dockwork:

"It is now generally accepted that some 80 per cent of accidents involve human factors. One of the most important human factors is stress and one of the key factors of stress is fatigue. The causes of fatigue can include not only severe physical effort but also the effect of working at times that are contrary to the body's natural inclinations, eg at night or on some systems of shiftwork, intense concentration and working continuously for long periods.

"Everybody needs a breaks in their working day from time to time. The frequency will depend on many factors including the physical demands of the work. It is essential that there is an adequate interval between the end of one working day and the start of the following working day. This interval should be long enough to allow adequate time for sleep, meals, travel to and from home and, where appropriate, exercise. Prolonged periods of work will increasingly lead to a build up of fatigue... it is essential that the need for rest days at appropriate intervals is considered."

The advice sheet advises employers to assess the hazards and risks from fatigue in order to comply with the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992.

From: Fatigue in Dockwork. HSE Information Sheet, March 1994.


1. The Empty Raincoat, Charles Handy, Hutchison.

2. Overwork and health disorders, Japanese Institute of the Economic Planning Agency, January 1994.

3. Karoshi - when the corporate warrior dies. National Defense Council for the Victims of Karoshi, Japan, 1990.

4. Health of Munitions Workers Committee. Industrial fatigue and its causes. 1916.

5. Prevention of accidents. 1945. Vernon. Brit J of Ind Med. Vol.2, No1.

6. Stress among construction site managers. 1989. Sutterland and Davidson. Stress Medicine. Vol.5, No4.

7. Work and stress in workers in Tokyo. 1991. Karaki. J of Human Ergology. Vol.20. No2.

8. Industrial Fatigue. 1961. Chambers. Occup. Psychology. Vol.35, No1-2.

9. Hazards of deep sea fishing. 1971. Schilling. Brit. J of Ind. Med. Vol.28, No1.

10. Safety in transport systems and hours of work. 1974. Cernobelski [in Russian].

11. Application of a portable test battery in the assessment of fatigue. 1992. Rosa and Colligan. Scand J of Work Environment and Health. Vol.18.

12. A compressed shift schedule. 1989. Cunningham. J of Organisational Behaviour. Vol.10, No3.

13. Performance, alertness and sleep after 3-5 years of 12 hour shifts. 1991. Work and Stress. Vol.5, No2.

14. Extended work days. 1986. Rosa, Colligan and Lewis. Proc. of Human Factors. Vol.2.

15. Fatigue: the hidden killer on our roads. September 1994. TGWU, Transport House, Smith Square, London SW1P 3JB.