“At our company, we expect our employees to go the extra mile, staying after hours for example. No, we don’t pay overtime.”
“I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, but I really need you to take on a few extra responsibilities that aren’t in your job description.”
“I can see you’re in extreme pain and need to go to the hospital, but we’re severely understaffed so I’m afraid I can’t let you go.”
Sound familiar? These are just a few examples of the requests and expectations I’ve experienced over the course of my employment history. The type of expectations that represent a societal ideal I have never been able to wrap my head around: work is paramount.
I hear stories everyday. Friends having panic attacks because their job is pushing them too far; family members so exhausted after work they come home and climb straight into bed, only to wrestle themselves out the next morning to begin the day again, bleary eyed and reliant on caffeine. Articles dominate my news feed about the cost of mental health problems to businesses in the UK, the hospital workers struggling through 12-hour round-the-clock shifts only to be made to do more to meet demand. Employers can treat us appallingly all for the sake of work, but what is worse is that we treat ourselves the exact same way when we ignore our bodies and our brains and we let this cycle continue.
It feels as if we have become infected with the toxic impulse to overwork ourselves. Japan may be the most famous example: the government’s karōshi report revealing that “23 percent of 1,743 companies surveyed said they have employees who have worked more than 80 hours of overtime a month — a criteria beyond which a worker’s death can be linked to overwork — including 12 percent that replied that some of their employees clocked more than 100 hours of overtime in a single month. The ratio shoots up to 44 percent among companies in the information and communications business, 40 percent in the research and technology service sectors and 38 percent in trucking and postal businesses”. (source)
This overwork is not only incredibly damaging to our health, it is literally killing us. Overtime and extended work schedules are associated with an increased risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, fatigue, stress, depression, musculoskeletal disorders, chronic infections, diabetes and other general health complaints. In Japan, most karōshi victims succumb to brain aneurysms, strokes and heart attack. In 2015 alone, the deaths of 96 Japanese workers due to brain and heart illnesses were recognized as the result of overwork under the labor accident compensation scheme, while suicide and suicide attempts by 93 workers was blamed on mental problems induced by overwork.
So why do we do it? Why do we turn ourselves into workaholics when we are all too painfully aware of the misery it brings? Unfortunately it’s difficult to escape a work culture that encourages its employees to “go the extra mile”. While we have laws to govern our working hours, many chose to opt out and pursue a longer working week. Their reasons are numerous: wanting to make a good impression, escaping an unsatisfactory home life, feeling like they don’t have a choice…Employers do reward hard workers with recognition, raises, bonuses, and though these gestures make us feel special and valuable, it can lead to employers expecting the same performance from all other workers. And so the cycle renews itself.
Over recent years employers are becoming more and more aware of the incredible costs of bad employee health. For example, “Duke University researchers found that obesity costs American businesses $73.1 billion per year, while Harvard researchers suggest insomnia is responsible for $63.2 billion in costs”. The World Health Organisation estimates that better mental health support in the workplace can save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year, which is certainly an attractive incentive. But the courageous leader will be aware that the morality of the cause that far outweighs the monetary value. The compassion and understanding that employees are human, and work cannot and should not rule them, is an important quality every courageous leader should have and one that sets him or her apart. We live in a world where the very idea of increasing the living wage in the UK could lead to more businesses replacing jobs with robots because they are cheaper. We all may joke or even admit mild concern about the possibility of an A.I. uprising if we overwork and mistreat robots, but we are already overworking and mistreating our own. Why don’t humans get a Matrix-style blockbuster on the subject?
Conscious leaders have the responsibility to respect and value workers and care about every aspect of their health. Mindful entrepreneurs have a direct impact on the work habits of tomorrow and their choices can inspire positive change. Conscious leaders have the unique opportunity to help shape society for the better, and many have already started. High-profile companies such as Google encourage napping at work, while some are buying into the new trend of play culture, with research showing that “play at work is linked with less fatigue, boredom, stress, and burnout in individual workers”. Though many have already begun do adopt a more conscious approach to leadership and inspiring work culture, many more need to follow in these trail-blazers’ footsteps.
As an overworked employee , feelings of futility tend to prevail. It can be hard to see what can one person do to fight back against this karōshi culture when their employer is not like-minded. What we often don’t realize is that the first step always begins with the individual. Saying no to overwork and remembering to value your health and your time is the best and most important place to start. If your work interferes with your life, causes you stress, or hinders your family’s happiness, it is time to re-evaluate your current work-life balance. Reflect on how and why this problem developed: does your perceived value at work affect your self-esteem? Does 60-hour work week distracts you from problems in other parts of your life? As much as our society can pressure us into overwork, there is often a more personal motivation that needs to be understood and worked through.
Admit that you are not as indispensable at your job as you think you are. Let go of the office perks of workaholism and face up to any personal demons that you have been denying. Prioritize balance. Remember that work is just a part of life, not the most important. Wealth generation and consumerism should be our slaves, not our masters: where they make us happy, we should embrace them; where they make us miserable, we should cast them aside. Enjoy yourself. True wealth lies not only in having enough, but in having the time to enjoy everything and everyone around you.