In Japan, there is a word for “death by overwork,” it is “karoshi.” Americans are literally working themselves to death, so maybe our own version of this Japanese word will soon be made public. America is the most overworked nation in the developed world. We have become hostage to our jobs, largely due to employment laws that have made work-life balance unattainable.
In 1937, then President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as part of his New Deal agenda, establishing the five-day, 40-hour maximum workweek. The unions pushed it, and business leaders went along with it, since the research conducted in the five decades leading up to its passage consistently found that 8-hour work days and 40-hour work weeks kept workers productive, safe, healthy, and efficient over a long period of time.
The 40-hour workweek, however, has slowly become extinct. More people in the middle-income bracket, as well as those in professional/managerial positions (defined as those with incomes in the top 20 percent), are working longer hours.
In the 1970’s, 34% of men in professional-managerial positions worked 50-hours or more per week. Today, 38% of men in these positions work 50-hours or more per week. As far as middle-income male workers are concerned, 21% worked more than 50-hours per week in the 1970’s, whereas now 23% of male workers are at the mercy of their employers for a minimum of 50-hours per week. An even larger discrepancy can be seen with professional women, of whom only 6% worked 50-hours or more per week in the 1970’s, whereas this figure has since more than doubled.
Tragically, Americans are working approximately 11 more hours per week now than they did in the 1970’s, yet the average income for middle-income families has declined by 13% (when adjusting for inflation) since the 1970s.
When examining the average work weeks in other countries, you can only begin to wonder if they believe we have lost our sanity, or soon will. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Americans work an average of 35-hours per week, surpassing most industrialized nations.
European countries such as Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands boast the lowest average work hours per week, working just 27 hours per week. In Denmark and Sweden, the average work week is just 31-hours. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the average total work hours of Americans exceeds that of the Norwegians by nearly 500 hours over a span of a year, and that of the Danes by nearly 200 hours.
Ironically, a recent article published in Time ranked the world’s happiest countries based on Gallup polls from 2005-2011, and many of the aforementioned countries ranked in the top five:
It was determined that psychosocial satisfaction played a major role in their happiness. In fact, it played as much or even more of a role than prosperity. Strong social networks and better relationships with one another were common societal attributes in these countries. Apparently, many of those residing in these countries are forgiving of the frigid temperatures and harsh winters, and place a much greater value upon strong relationships and prosperity as it pertains to their happiness.
Could it be that the additional free time from not being captive at work for so long allows people more of a social life to bond and develop relationships with one another? Is it possible that a country’s wealth is just one of many factors that provide life satisfaction to its residents, and that the importance of work-life balance and tight-knit communities are being overlooked?
Americans work hard for a variety of reasons. We may be motivated purely by ambition and dreams of becoming the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Maybe it is service to others that motivates us to work hard; that desire to feel needed and wanted by our communities.
On the other hand, it has become more common that receiving a paycheck at the end of the week is all that keeps us working that dreadfully painful job. The job satisfaction rate has plummeted to 45% since the peak of the economic crisis, the lowest level ever recorded. We are working more and enjoying it less.
In this corporate “sink or swim” environment, people fear being laid off or underperforming and being passed over for a promotion, thus they feel obliged to perpetually work, even while on vacation. We have begun to take on a level of subservience that is cringing. We fail to assert our need to take time off from fear of losing our jobs and our livelihood, in spite of the fact that doing so would be beneficial to us and to our employers in the long term.
Overwork and Health
We are not machines, but human beings with vital organs that need to be nourished, rested, and kept active. There is a false assumption that we can endure long strenuous hours of mental (or physical) activity and focus without major consequences on our cognitive, emotional, or physical health.
A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology compared those working more than 55-hours per week to those working 35-40 hours per week. Participants in the study were all between the ages of 35-55 years of age. The researchers used a battery of tests, and each person was given a pre-assessment and post-assessment test to determine if there was any significant difference in cognitive decline after a 5-year period between the groups.
The findings suggested that fluid intelligence, which is associated with problem solving, short-term memory, and creativity, was significantly lower in the group that worked more than 55-hours.
If short-term memory and logic are indeed hindered, as indicated in the study, this will adversely affect productivity, and work quality, leading to more mistakes on the job. Moreover, it could affect your personal life as well, hampering your ability to find items, remember events, make wise decisions, be a good caretaker, etc.
Overwork is also associated with psychological distress. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental medicine compared those that do not work overtime to those who work overtime regularly to gauge whether longer work hours led to anxiety and/or depression. The study determined that those who worked overtime regularly had increased levels of anxiety and depression. This was true regardless of gender, or vocation.
This makes perfect sense, of course, since many people perceive their work as a major source of stress, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). We all need some stress in our lives, as it keeps us alert and motivated, but too much or chronic stress is not good.
Chronic stress elevates hormonal levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone,” and reduces levels of important neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which are known to promote a positive mood. These neurotransmitters also play an important role in regulating our appetite, sleep, and energy levels. It is for this reason that if we do not allow the stress response to shut off for a period of time, we are susceptible to becoming depressed. In other words, chronically working a stressful job, with little time off and long hours, drastically increases your chances of becoming depressed.
Stress also leads to destructive habits. People under chronic stress are more likely to resort to alcohol, cigarettes, or other drugs as a coping mechanism. They are also less likely to engage in a structured exercise regimen. The reason for this is because stress is exhausting and unpleasant, and we seek to ease the discomfort.
If the average day for us involves long hours at work, indulging in alcoholic beverages to help unwind, and finally going to sleep, we are setting ourselves up in a deadly trap. Just think- the vast majority of your day was spent sitting and laced with anxiety and other stressors. Excessive sitting is linked to obesity, which in turn, is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and a host of other illnesses. Not to mention, the alcohol you have been devouring routinely after work isn’t particularly good for your liver or brain cells.
Thus, the long work hour is the trigger, and the chronic stress, prolonged sitting, and possible substance abuse are the bullets.
What is the word for this in Japanese? Karoshi.