How to Avoid Death From Karoshi
The unspoken killer that could make your job hazardous to your health.
Posted Dec 03, 2020
It’s ironic, isn’t it? The jobs we perform day in and day out and week to week to pay bills and put food on the table keep us alive. But they also can kill us when taken to the extreme—just as many things can.
Take water, for example. We require it to survive, but too much of it can drown us. The same is true of work stress. “It finally reached a point that I hit a wall!” exclaimed Ed, referring to work stress and smacking his right fist into his left palm, “and I couldn’t escape it anymore. I was either going to deal with it, or I was going to die.”
Karoshi: Death From Work Stress
Although the English language doesn’t have a word for death from work stress, other countries do. The Japanese use the term karoshi to describe the thousands of workers a year in that country who reportedly drop dead from putting in 60-to-70-hour workweeks. Otherwise healthy Japanese workers keel over at their desks after a long stretch of overtime or after consummating a high-pressured deal, usually from a stroke or heart attack. Karoshi among corporate workers in their 40s and 50s has become so common that the Japanese workplace has been dubbed “a killing field.” And some economists in India have referred to death from work stress as “a poison by slow motion.”
With a soaring pandemic and the upswing of remote working, rising job stress is tied to an escalating mental and physical health epidemic. Two-thirds of American workers suffer from job burnout. Cases of anxiety, depression and suicide, and stress-related diseases are on the rise. Studies show that work stress bombards our neurological system, keeping our fight-or-flight response on high alert, creating high blood pressure and heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and a lowered immune system. As work stress damages our health, it also leads to an unmanageable life, family disintegration, and even death.
Sometimes work stress is driven by corporate demands and sometimes by self-imposed pressures. For some people, work is the central connection of their lives, as compelling as the connection that addicts experience with booze or cocaine. You could be the lawyer who brings his briefcase on family picnics, while his wife carries the picnic basket; the therapist who schedules appointments six days a week, from 8 in the morning to 8 at night; or the real estate saleswoman who cannot have a heart-to-heart talk with her husband without simultaneously watching television, eating dinner and going over property-assessment reports. In each case, work stress has thrown you off balance, preventing you from living a healthy life and putting you at risk of death from a condition without a name—karoshi.
What about you? Do you overload yourself with commitments, pressure yourself with unrealistic deadlines, or white-knuckle it when you have to wait? Do you wail at the clock or drum your fingers when things don’t move fast enough? Karoshi could be slowly killing you, and you might not even know it. Studies show that self-care is the first line of defense. Many professionals believe the myth that work stress is a prerequisite to get ahead in their careers. But the science shows the opposite: that work stress truncates our career trajectory. If we’re in the habit of sacrificing our well-being to meet work demands, we can’t be the best version of ourselves. Self-care prepares us to give more to our jobs. When we put ourselves first, there’s more of us to go around.
Think of yourself as an athlete. Your physical and mental endurance hinge on being in good shape. It’s important to take care of our physical health outside of work with good nutrition, vigorous exercise, and ample sleep. When we carve out time to recharge and replenish, we build our resilience to stress. Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, has found that people who follow the science actually thrive in their careers: “The research is unequivocal that sleep and time to recharge along with good nutrition and movement improve both our cognitive and physical performance. Of course, we see that with athletes. You wouldn’t have Tom Brady or Simone Biles forego sleep, eat junk, and then show up to perform or play a big game. It’s the same for all of us in any area of life. That’s why at Thrive we have a lot of interviews from elite athletes like Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, and the 49ers who recognize how important it is to move what they’ve learned in the sports world to the rest of the world.”
The Collective Delusion
Research shows top-notch companies that make employee self-care a priority boost their bottom line. There is a call for redefining the wellness category in corporate America. It begins with changing the collective delusion that in order to succeed, employees must burn out and put their lives on the line. The mission of Thrive Global is to change this delusion through mind shifts and what Huffington calls Microsteps: “The collective delusion is at the heart of the hustle culture and emphasis on burnout out as a badge of honor to the point of emotional bankruptcy. The habit of overextending yourself has diminishing returns. So what we show is that it doesn’t actually improve your performance; it’s damaging to your performance. That’s a central part of the mind shift. And then on the Microstep front, we help people go from knowing what to do, to doing it by giving them small, incremental daily steps.”
As more organizations eschew the collective delusion and jump on the wellness bandwagon and more workers do their part to bring a healthy mind, body, and spirit to the workplace, the potential for a sustainable career trajectory and the company’s bottom line are guaranteed.
This post also appeared on Forbes.
Robinson, B. E. (2014). Chained To The Desk. New York: New York University Press.