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.

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When Employers Go Too Far

It’s pretty common for people to squawk about their employers.  Usually the bitching seems almost rote — a simple byproduct of the friction and unequal power relationship between underling and boss, huge corporation and cubicle dweller.  The company they work for isn’t evil, it’s just faceless and bureaucratic.  Sometimes, though, companies get . . . well, downright weird.

doctorposter2Like the South Korean recruitment company that decided an appropriate response to issues of workplace stress was to require employees to stage their own funerals, complete with writing farewell letters to loved ones, climbing into coffins and having them closed by a guy in black who is supposed to represent the Angel of Death, and then spending a few moments lying in the darkness of a closed casket.

South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the industrialized world, and workers in Seoul and other parts of the country have ongoing problems with workplace pressure.  The problems are the byproduct of the hyper-competitive, achievement-oriented South Korean society and traditional approaches to workplace culture that motivate employees to get to work earlier, and leave work later, than the boss.

So how in the heck does staging mock funerals help with stress and suicide?  It’s supposed to help the employees value life and get them to reflect on its meaning.  The president of the recruitment company explained that the company had not really been successful in getting employees to change their “old ways of thinking,” and he thought “going inside a coffin would be such a shocking experience it would completely reset their minds for a completely fresh start in their attitudes.”

Would it, really?  Or would it, instead, drive home to the workers forced to crawl into a casket that their employers have a ridiculous amount of power over their employees’ lives, to the point where they can force the employees to stage macabre and disturbing stunts just because the company president thinks it’s a great idea to do so?

Suddenly the hassles with Phil in accounting and the power games played by the assistant vice president for corporate planning don’t seem all that bad.

 

Lives (And Deaths) Of Quiet Desperation

After years of increasing longevity, studies are showing that the death rate is rising, but only for one group — white Americans between the ages of 45 and 54.  The divergence in the trend lines may be inexplicable, but it is unmistakable.  While death rates are falling in other first-world countries, and for African-Americans and Hispanics in the United States, they are rising for middle-aged whites.

The circumstances of the deaths all point to mental health issues as an underlying cause for the anomaly.  As the Wall Street Journal reports, between 1999 and 2013 deaths from suicide, drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, and chronic liver disease all increased for that population demographic, even as the incidence of other common causes for mortality, such as lung cancer, declined.  The studies also show that the increase in the mental health-related causes of death is particularly notable among middle-aged whites with no more than a high school education, although increases also were observed among better-educated segments of the population, too.

The experts aren’t sure why the mortality trend is affecting this particular group.  Some point to increases in mental health issues among white Americans and musculoskeletal problems that have left people in chronic pain — and therefore ripe for self-medication through alcohol or addiction to powerful painkillers — but those don’t seem like reasons that should target one demographic group to the exclusion of others, or for that matter should affect Americans but not Germans, British, or Canadians.

Other experts say that “economic stress” is the culprit, and that many Americans have reached middle age only to find that they are less well off than their parents, when the “American Dream” we heard about growing up is supposed to result in increases in wealth and happiness from generation to generation.  That rationale might explain why Americans are being affected as opposed to those in other countries — but is belief in the “American Dream” really so profoundly different among different demographic groups that it would explain the different death rates?

In Walden, Henry D. Thoreau wrote:  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  Many of us know people who have succumbed to that desperation, but we aren’t sure precisely why.  We don’t know why they are prone to addiction, or depression, or suicidal thoughts when others in similar circumstances manage to deal with their problems and forge ahead — but these studies indicate that their stories are sufficiently commonplace to create a clear and disturbing statistical trend.

Our grandparents and parents would scoff at the idea that the “American Dream” was a bad thing.  Could it be that its aspirational notions have created expectations that, if unrealized, produce disappointment so crushing that it cannot be borne?  I’m skeptical of that conclusion, but I nevertheless wonder why so many people apparently are so desperately unhappy about their lives, and what we can do to change that trend.

Goodbye To Robin

News outlets are reporting that Robin Williams has died, of an apparent suicide.  The actor and comedian, who was only 63, evidently had been battling severe depression.

Williams became a big star on the TV show Mork and Mindy, and over the next four decades he had a busy career in stand-up comedy, in movies, and as the voice for animated characters.  Although many lauded his movie roles, both comic and serious, I always thought that Williams’ true medium was in his stand-up routines — his riff on Scotland and golf, below, is a classic — and he was absolutely brilliant as the voice and motivating spirit behind the manic genie in Disney’s Aladdin.

We tend to idolize Hollywood stars, musicians, and other cultural figures, and think that because they are rich and successful they must have wonderful lives.  Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case — they are human like the rest of us, and they also often wrestle with their inner demons.  It’s tragic that someone like Robin Williams, who brought joy and laughter to millions, had to struggle with his own issues of depression, and it’s sadder still that he apparently lost that battle.  Although we no doubt will hear about how the world has lost a titanic talent over the next few days, the real loss is that experienced by Williams’ family, who now have a gigantic hole in their lives that can never be filled.