Working Ourselves to Death: The Debate Over Our Workday’s Toll

In today’s world, being “always on” has become the norm. Hyper-productivity is encouraged by businesses, with employees always on call even on their days off. As workplace competition grows fiercer, it’s not uncommon to see employees working through the weekend, either playing catch up or trying to get a head start on the following week’s work. The prevalence of these intense workweeks, that often greatly exceed 40 hours, begs the question: are we working ourselves to death?

Overwhelmingly, the statistics point to yes. For instance, this article on 20 Something Finance states that in the U.S., “85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week.” Additionally, the ILO states that “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.”

Now, you might be thinking: “Death by overworking? That can’t be right.” Unfortunately, death by overwork isn’t some made-up concept. The phenomenon is actually quite common, so much so that in Japan, they even have a word for it: karoshi. Studies show that one in every five Japanese workers is at risk of dying from overwork, making it a very real problem.

Japan isn’t the only country that needs to be concerned about overworking its population. Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer claims that the workplace is the fifth-leading cause of death in the United States – ahead of both Alzheimer’s and kidney disease. His research shows that “mismanagement of workforces causes more than 120,000 deaths every year.” Excessive work hours, lack of control and autonomy, lack of insurance and work-related family conflict are the major culprits behind widespread mismanagement.

The Role of Business Leaders

Ideally, corporations themselves would take action to prevent the mental and physical tolls overworking can have on employees. There are many ways to do so. For example, employers can enforce a communications policy to promote employees to disconnect from their devices, resulting in more free time for other wellness activities.

Studies show that “82 percent of employees respond to work-related emails while on vacation and 87 percent of employees think it is acceptable to call or text coworkers and clients regarding work-related matters outside the standard work hours.” Management should set acceptable expectations when it comes to communicating, respecting and encouraging the freedom to disconnect.

Similarly, management should encourage taking breaks and utilizing time-off. Most organizations have a fixed number of paid holidays every year, but many employees don’t end up using these. As stated in an article on Talent Culture, “Often, employees will let these add up with the intention of taking a long vacation at the end of the year, but when that time comes, something or the other prevents them from doing so and their leave lapses.”

Managers have the power to promote breaks and vacations. Taking a step back may seem counterintuitive to the ideals of hard work, but doing so will keep employees more grounded and less likely to be victims of stress.

Finally, businesses can promote a more laid-back culture within the workplace itself, so that employees don’t feel overworked and always under pressure. Providing incentives such as a reward for the employee who clocks in the most hours at the gym and organizing charity drives for employees to participate in are some ways to foster a better workplace culture. There have even been cases made for allowing responsible drinking at work as a way to reduce stress, increase job satisfaction, and encourage camaraderie between employees.

Preventive Measures for Employees

Until these measures are inculcated into workplace culture, however, it is up to you, the employee, to you to ensure that you aren’t a victim of overworking and work-related stress. The very first thing you can do is think about whether a particular job will be a good fit for your mental, emotional and physical health. You should do this before accepting the job in the first place.

If you are offered a job, don’t only consider remuneration – think about how the job will make you feel. Consider the workplace culture as well as any physical demands the job might require. Will you be satisfied or do you foresee the job taking a massive toll on your health and personal life? If you need some time to mull things over, be sure to express gratitude for the offer, and then politely ask for some time to consider it.

While at work, it is prudent to get up and take breaks through the day. If you are struggling with a big task, ask your coworkers or managers for help. Trying to handle many duties alone often requires one to work overtime and under pressure, leading to a neglect of one’s mental and physical health.

Additionally, commit to “disconnecting”. If you are off work, or on a vacation, give your mind a chance to relax and rejuvenate itself. Rather than checking your phone or laptop for emails and updates every so often, enjoy the time off and keep your devices aside. Even though these measures often require a significant change in mindset on the part of the employee, they allow for a more holistic sense of well-being in the long run.  

Workaholism might not yet be recognized as a medical condition, but it has become a serious problem in recent years. Chances are, your body will give you signs when it’s on the verge of breaking down – and it’s important that you listen to those signs before it’s too late. Unfortunately, overworking is often equated with a strong worth ethic and dedication. Its severe and even fatal effects on the body and mind are not nearly as widely recognized as they ought to be – by employers and employees alike. A shift in paradigm is desperately required, but unsurprisingly, is still a long ways away. So for now, it is crucial that both employers and employees understand the dangers of overworking, and not allow themselves to be worked to death.

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