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.

Advertisements

The Genetic Snare

Recently a friend survived a heart attack.  He didn’t smoke, kept his weight down, ate the right things, and got exercise.  But his father had had a heart attack, and when my friend reached his mid-50s, so did he.

When something like that happens to a person you know, it shakes you.  You think about your own family medical history and wonder how many of those health problems were due to lifestyle and how many to awesome genetic forces lurking deep within our cells, like tiny time bombs that could explode with devastating consequences at any moment, irrespective of how much lettuce you eat?  Did my father, uncle, and grandfather die of cancer because they were heavy smokers, or because of some squamous anomaly in their mitochondria that was triggered by strands of DNA without regard to intake of tar and nicotine?

And, probing even deeper into the levels of introspection, what would you prefer the answers to these questions to be?  Are you a fatalist who is more comfortable thinking you’ve already been dealt all the cards and just have to play the hand as well as you can?  If you could take a test and determine, conclusively, that the raging fires of cancer were going to consume your body no matter what you did, would you want to know so you could adjust your lifestyle accordingly and move down the spectrum to enjoy the delightful but unhealthy things you’ve avoided?  Or would you rather hope that your good behavior and healthy lifestyle could win you a reprieve from the otherwise inevitable genetic snare?

I’m in the latter category.  I’d like to think that my decisions make a difference to the equation and might have an impact on whether I keel over in the near future.  My friend’s situation makes me think, however:  “Am I just kidding myself?”