Death by Overwork

February 19th, 2019
Death by Overwork

Are You Suffering from Overwork?

Karoshi is the infamous Japanese phenomenon that translates to death by overwork. That’s bad. What’s worse, it’s probably not just a Japanese phenomenon.

Though it’s a recognized occupational health hazard in Asia, death by overwork can happen anywhere. However, when it occurs in North America, we don’t call it death by overwork. We call it death by heart attack or stroke (which can happen in conjunction with a starvation diet). There is ample evidence to suggest workers are overburdened and at risk in many countries.

Oxford Health Plans, an insurance company, conducted research that found one in five Americans show up for work whether they’re ill, injured or have a medical appointment. Furthermore, one in five workers avoids taking vacations. This often occurs because they are afraid of being replaced or they believe they are indispensable.

Are you at Risk of Overwork?

Workaholics Anonymous suggests this list of warning signs you are in danger of overwork:

  1. Working more than 40 hours a week;
  2. Taking work with you to bed, on weekends and on vacation;
  3. Talking about work more than any other subject;
  4. Believing it’s okay to work long hours if you love what you do;
  5. Thinking about working while driving, falling asleep or when others are talking.

Our Work Culture Needs to Change

Though a systemic cultural shift may be needed, until then, one of our major work issues is the lack of separation of work and play. If you’re checking work email in the evening, you’re working overtime, often for no remuneration. Many North American workers will be reluctant to try to change their company’s work culture. Take heart. We know it can be done because Germany’s already doing it.

German workers enjoy a more people-friendly corporate culture. Though twenty paid days of vacation is mandated each year, the average number of vacation days in Germany is twenty-four. Thirty-five hours is the average workweek and eight hours is the standard workday. By law, Sundays and public holidays are not workdays (with some exceptions). Even better, it is illegal in Germany for employees to contact staff during holidays and work-related emails are for work hours.

Despite working fewer hours than their counterparts in many countries, the German workforce’s productivity and profitability are very high. That’s the macro view of workplace safety. What can you do right now?

It’s not all bad news.

We can take steps to guard against collapsing at our desks. Many North Americans need to stop sacrificing themselves on the shrine of productivity. To do it, we’ll have to switch our priorities, take control of our boundaries and change individual habits.

Don’t cross the streams!

One example we can follow is also from Germany. The country’s motto might as well be: work hard, play hard. Distractions at work are frowned upon in the typical German workplace. That means no texting, calls or commenting on Facebook during work hours. However, when they’re done for the day, they’re done! Interestingly, German cultural attitudes often keep work friends and social engagement separate. In off-hours, interaction in social clubs (e.g. gardening, hiking, gaming and the like) are frequent.

For the healthy German employee, work is not their life, and it does not take up all their waking hours. They have achieved work-life balance.
In other countries, the siesta is still practiced. Originating in Italy, it took hold in Spain and is still practiced in many countries. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of the mid-day break is fading as more and more people chase the myth that more hours at work equates to higher productivity.

Work-life Imbalance Can Take More Than One Form

Have you fallen prey to presenteeism? Presenteeism is the practice of staying at work longer than is indeed required. According to a piece by the BBC, Marc Grau, an expert in work-life balance, presenteeism “can affect motivation, job performance, work satisfaction, life satisfaction and it obviously has an effect on family life.”

Work doesn’t have to be this way.

As one friend of mine put it, “I can get my work done between the hours of nine and five. If someone works long hours, that tells me they may be distracted at work. Maybe some people who look like workaholics are just inefficient. Maybe they’re headed for burnout and need to work smarter, delegate, say no or ask for help. We can adjust expectations so they’re more reasonable and healthier. We need to manage our stress better. It’s an important health issue. It doesn’t help any company’s bottom line to have unhealthy employees.”

The word “equilibrium” means a state of physical balance and a calm state of mind. At Equilibrium, we will help you achieve that balance. To help you with your work-life balance, one right way to start might be to shut off your cell phone for an hour and have a relaxing massage. Some quiet time for the mind and a treat for the body might be the retreat you need to begin your journey to better health.

~ Robert Chute RMT (Ret.) is the author of Do The Thing, The Last Stress-busting Book You’ll Ever Need.