Overwork Kills — Literally 10:35, January 30, 2017

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Overwork Kills — Literally

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Recent headlines have linked the resignation of the CEO of Japanese advertising monolith Dentsu with a young employee’s  “death by overwork.” Business Insider writes that the 24-year-old woman committed suicide after working 105 overtime hours during her final month, and after posting about her working conditions on social media. If the posts were a cry for help that went unheard, does this tragedy from across the sea carry a message about the dangers of overwork that we should heed?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “overwork” as: “to make someone work harder than is reasonable” (or “to work harder than you should”); and “to use or do something so much that it is no longer effective.” Granted that there’s no one-size-fits all explanation of how much work is “reasonable” or what it means to “work harder than you should,” it’s useful to focus on when work becomes ineffective, especially in light of studies about the detriments of overwork on health and productivity.

The Productivity Cliff

It is not true that output is a matter of hours spent. While many businesses and professions need the flexibility to at least occasionally demand extra hours to meet fluctuating market demands, managers and workers need to put in the extra effort upfront to think through tasks and avoid counterproductive overwork. For example, CNBC reported in a summary of recent research that output falls sharply after working 50 hours per week, and “falls off a cliff” (results in a negative net loss of productivity) after 55 hours. Hence, employers need to bear this research in mind when assessing how much work is needed to achieve a desired result.

Employees share some of this responsibility as well. Particularly, so-called “work martyrs” — motivated by a combination of economic insecurity, misplaced ambition, and an inability to “unplug” — work longer hours, forego vacations, and consequently overwork themselves (and others if they’re managers) until they achieve the prize of early burnout. Workers who sacrifice fun, family, and sleep time on the altar of company dedication make it difficult for managers to norm on planning tasks that can be accomplished during a regular workweek and skew expectations of workplace productivity.

Can Overwork Kill?

Not only does overwork lead to productivity and planning issues; it also has implications for employee health and well-being. If managers do not discourage work martyrdom (or worse, encourage it), they facilitate a lack of work-life balance with the consequent deterioration of personal relationships, family, and health. In extreme cases, overwork can kill.

Strange as it may seem to the uninitiated, so-called “death by overwork” is far more common than one would expect, at least in Japan: in 2015, there were anywhere from 2,013 to 10,000 such fatalities (the latter being equivalent to the number of traffic deaths) , as the BBC has reported. There’s even a word for it in Japanese: “karoshi” (in China it’s called “guolaosi”). According to the report, workers who die after working more than 100 overtime hours in the past month, or 80 hours in at least two consecutive months during the last six-month period, are victims of karoshi, whose families are entitled to substantial compensation in Japan.

Of course, the BBC report emphasizes that overwork probably does not kill people directly; rather, the culprit is more likely a combination of related factors, such as underlying physical or mental health conditions made worse by sleep deprivation, and too much sedentary time in the case of office work.

But the phenomenon of overwork and its consequences are not limited to Japan, even if karoshi gives the country dubious attention. According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, in 2015 the average US worker worked more hours per year than their Japanese counterparts. Many countries work even longer hours. An international study concluded that “[e]mployees who work long hours have a higher risk of stroke than those working standard hours,” and a study of British civil servants reportedly found that working long hours increases the risk of depression.

Considering the benefits of putting in the right amount of effort to achieve the desired outcome and the significant downsides of overwork, what keeps us pushing? Why, with information on the downsides of overwork readily available, is the 9 to 5 workday becoming a thing of the past?

Overcoming Barriers to Reasonable Work Hours

One way to prevent overwork is by focusing on the desired results given the time available, taking account of the potential for lost productivity from excessive overtime, then prioritize and allocate tasks accordingly. Discouraging or even prohibiting online work after-hours is another positive step.

Reasonable work hours based on results (not time clocked) sounds good on paper. But implementing such policies at all levels is the real challenge. Companies can encourage good work hour practices by the example of top leadership, but lower-level managers and employees can undermine these efforts if they don’t share leadership’s priorities (and aren’t held accountable). Systematic solutions that involve leadership and employees on all levels are needed.

A forty-hour workweek is usually possible with a little planning. In fact, according to a recent survey done in preparation for new federal overtime regulations (which are currently on hold pending litigation), 70% of salaried workers believe they could complete all their work in 40 hours if their employers would help, including by implementing flexible start and end times, requiring fewer and shorter meetings, streamlining workflows and processes, hiring additional workers, redistributing job duties, or providing greater autonomy.

Overcoming barriers, such as leadership’s reluctance to rethink human resource allocation to meet demands, a company culture that values overwork, or lack of oversight of workaholic employees, is indispensable to streamlining work efforts to achieve measurable results.

This goes beyond compliance. In most US jurisdictions, there are few if any limits on how many hours of work an employer can require, so long as they pay any applicable overtime rates. Rather, maintaining reasonable and productive work hours is pragmatic. Doing right in terms of productivity goals means also doing right by helping employees (and yourself, if you overwork) manage their tasks in a manner that gets them home on time for dinner.

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Steve Treagus
Stephen Treagus, JD's, previous practice as an attorney specializing in employment litigation exposed him to the rough-and-tumble world of employment relationships gone awry. Today, this experience informs his articles and courses, helping employers avoid costly litigation and get employment law right. Stephen earned his JD from John F. Kennedy University School of Law and his BA from Sonoma State University.

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