Death By Overwork

Here’s an amazing fact:  Japan is, only now, looking to limit how much overtime employers can ask employees to work.  And, even more amazing, the first-ever proposal to limit overtime would set a cap at 100 hours per month.

p1010928Japan has long had a curious tradition of a slavish work ethic, with some employers measuring employee hours not by productivity — where Japanese workers trail Americans and others — but by raw hours worked, which the employers associate with qualities like loyalty and dedication.  So even though Japanese law has instituted a 40-hour work week, it is commonplace for workers to spend far more time than that at the office and on the job, with no governmental limit on how much “overtime” employees can be expected to put in.  The social pressure to commit to working crushing hours has even caused the Japanese to coin a word — karoshi — to refer to death from overwork.  Every year, hundreds of deaths from heart attacks, strokes, and suicides are attributed to karoshi, and a recent government survey determined that one in five Japanese companies have employees whose tendency to overwork puts them at risk.

It was a recent suicide, of a young employee of an advertising firm, that caused the Japanese government to propose the first-ever limitation on overtime.  But those who advocate true reform of the Japanese work culture scoff at a 100-hour-a-month limit as almost as outlandish as having no limit at all, because it means employers could routinely require employees to work more than 60 hours a week.  That’s ten hours a day, six days a week — not exactly the kind of restriction that is going to prevent people from suffering the mental and physical health effects of constant overwork.

The Japanese problem with karoshi is an example of how cultures can develop in radically different ways, imposing expectations that would be unimaginable elsewhere. How many countries and cultures have a problem with people routinely working themselves to an early grave?  And part of the problem is that there remain thousands of Japanese workers who accept the culture imperative to work like a dog and try to satisfy its demands, rather than just rejecting the unreasonable expectations and going somewhere where the work-life balance is a happier and healthier one.  You can impose government regulations, but at a certain level individuals have to stand up for themselves and act in their own best interests — cultural imperatives or not.

Losing The Pyramids And The Sphinx

Egypt is the latest Middle Eastern country teetering on the brink of chaos.  Each day brings fresh reports of battles between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood and dozens of new deaths on the streets of Cairo.

I can’t fully appreciate the religious, political, and social issues that are playing out in Egypt.  I can understand, however, what a loss it is for the world that Egypt has become a place that is not safe to visit.  It means that many people will never see the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx, or the other relics of the ancient Egyptian civilization along the Nile.

That loss is a terrible tragedy.  The Sphinx, the pyramids, and the temples of the pharaonic era are the greatest surviving sites of our ancient past.  They are not merely historical sites, but a tangible link to the early development of human culture.  Their very existence shows what our forebears were capable of, even if we don’t quite understand how they were built thousands of years ago.  Their immense age, and their equally immense significance, are the reasons why standing in their presence on the Giza plain is such an awesome experience, and why so many people, myself included, have long dreamed of making the journey to Egypt to have that experience some day.

But not now.  Although the pull of the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings is enormous, it is not irresistible — not when a visit puts you at risk of finding yourself in a mob of angry, screaming men or confronting soldiers ready to fire at any moment.  That means, for me at least, that the pyramids and Sphinx are lost for now, and I don’t know when, or even if, they will ever be safe to visit in my lifetime.  That reality makes me very sad.