Working Hard—Hazardous to Your Health?
FALLING against his car, a middle-aged insurance salesman vomited and collapsed. He was still clutching his briefcase, the symbol of his work. Laboring under his company slogan, “Now is the crucial point. Exert your power to 150 percent of its capacity,” he had covered some 2,000 miles [3,000 km] in his car during the month he collapsed. Four days later, he died.
This is not an isolated case. “Corporate warriors,” as they are termed in Japan, are haunted by the nightmare of karoshi, or death from overwork. A lawyer specializing in such cases estimates that there are “at least 30,000 victims of karoshi in Japan every year.” No wonder over 40 percent of Japanese office workers recently surveyed feared possible death from overwork.
Though it may be hard to prove the link between overwork and health problems, the victims’ families have little doubt. In fact, the phrase “death from overwork” was coined in the compensation claims filed by bereaved families. “From a medical point of view,” says Tetsunojo Uehata of the Institute of Public Health in Japan, “it refers to a death or disability from cerebral apoplexy, myocardial infarction, or acute heart failure as a result of burdensome labor aggravating hypertension or arteriosclerosis.” A recent report by Japan’s Health and Welfare Ministry warns that constant overtime work robs one of sleep and eventually leads to bad health and illness.
Yet, just as smokers hate to admit to dangers in smoking, and alcoholics to dangers in alcohol abuse, workaholics are loath to acknowledge the hazards of unreasonably long hours of work. And death is not the only hazard.
Burnout and Depression
While some workaholics fall victim to disability and death, others succumb to burnout. “Burnout has no precise medical definition,” explains Fortune magazine, “but the commonly accepted symptoms include fatigue, low morale, absenteeism, increased health problems, and drug or alcohol abuse.” Some victims become hostile, while others start making careless mistakes. How, though, do people become victims of work burnout?
Generally, it is not the maladjusted or emotionally disturbed who do. Often it is people who care deeply about their job. They may be struggling to survive fierce competition or toiling to climb the corporate ladder. They work long and hard, trying to take full control. But when unwavering devotion and nonstop work do not produce the expected satisfaction and reward, they are disillusioned, feel worn-out, and become victims of work burnout.
What are the consequences? In Tokyo a telephone service called Life Line, set up to help would-be suicide victims, is getting more and more calls from desperate middle-aged and older office workers. Of the over 25,000 suicide victims in Japan in 1986, an amazing 40 percent were in their 40’s and 50’s, and 70 percent of these were male. “It is because depression among middle-aged wage earners is on the increase,” laments Hiroshi Inamura, a professor of psychiatry.
Then there is what has been styled holiday neurosis. The symptoms? Irritation on holidays from not doing anything. Driven by compulsion to work, the work devotee’s conscience troubles him on days off. Unable to find peace of mind, he paces around his small room just like an animal in a cage. When Monday comes, off he goes to the office, relieved.
A unique type of depression that is now sending middle-aged workers to the doctor is the so-called home-phobia syndrome. Worn-out workers linger around coffee shops and bars after work. Eventually, they stop going home entirely. Why do they fear returning home? Though unsympathetic spouses may be a factor, “many had been working too hard and lost the ability to adjust to the outside world, even in many cases to their own family,” says Dr. Toru Sekiya, who provides a “Night Hospital System” for such patients.
Family Life Strangled
The workaholic may not be the one who suffers most. Workaholism “is often more of a problem for the people who share their lives with a workaholic,” observes the magazine Entrepreneur. The marriage mate’s life can be turned into a nightmare. The workaholic “has already found the love of his or her life,” says the magazine The Bulletin of Sydney, Australia, “and accepting second place in line isn’t always easy.” What happens in such a marriage?
Take the case of Larry, an American employed by a Japanese corporation in the United States. He worked long hours of overtime without being paid for it, increasing the factory’s productivity 234 percent. Success and happiness? “Crazy!” exclaimed his wife in court as she divorced him.
Even worse was a Japanese business executive who left for work at five each morning and did not come home before nine at night. His wife began to drink excessively. One day, quarreling over her drinking, the man strangled his wife. The judge pronounced him guilty of homicide and said: “Completely devoted to work, you did not realize the loneliness of your wife and did not put forth enough effort to give her reasons to enjoy life.”
Strangling one’s mate is an extreme result, but overwork can snuff out family life in other ways. When the husband is home on Sundays, he may just lounge in front of a television set tuned to his favorite sports program and drowse away the whole afternoon. These husbands do not realize how out of touch with other aspects of life they have become. Overwhelmed by their work, they neglect a most valuable thing in life, their family. Ignoring the need for family communication, they are paving a sure way to a lonely retirement.
Old but Unsatisfied
The book At Work sounded a warning in its introduction: “In our society, . . . so strong is the link between work, self-esteem and social position that, on retirement, some find it extremely difficult to adjust to a life free of their former work roles.” Those who center their lives on work must ask themselves this question: ‘What will I have left if my work is taken away?’ Remember, when a person retires, his life may revolve around his family and community.
Those who have neglected the need for communication with their family and neighbors are at a loss after retirement to know what to talk about with them. “They are paying the bill for refusing to look at anything but work, are they not?” says a veteran counselor for middle-aged couples in Japan. “Their life lacked the human aspect, and they took everything for granted just because they were the breadwinners. When they retire, however, the tables seem to be turned.”
Those 30 or 40 years of hard work, supposedly for the family, can backfire. How sad if after years of hard work, former breadwinners are looked upon as “industrial waste” and nureochiba (wet fallen leaves) by their families. The latter expression is used in Japan to describe retired husbands who have nothing to do but hang around their wives all day. They are thus likened to wet fallen leaves that stick to a broom and cannot be shaken off, nothing but a nuisance.
Considering all the hazards involved, it is natural to ask, How can working hard be truly virtuous? Is there a work that brings real satisfaction? Our next article in this series takes up these questions.
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“If your husband loses his appetite, suffers sleeplessness, refuses to talk, then he is sending warning signals. Tell him to find pleasure in something other than work and to try to meet with non-company people.”—Dr. Toru Sekiya, Sekiya Neurology Clinic, Tokyo, Japan.
“I like to work long hours, but if you have to lose your husband or family in the process, you’re doing things the wrong way. It’s no fun to count your money by yourself.”—Mary Kay Ash, chairman of Mary Kay Cosmetics.
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Work burnout sometimes leads to severe problems
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Workaholic family heads often ruin the lives of those to whom they should be closest