Living to Work or Working to Live?

By Terry Streather | Mental Health

Aug 21

Ever heard the japanese word "karoshi"?

No, you can't eat it or get a black belt in it... It translates as: "Overwork Death". Yep, the Japanese have a phrase for people who literally work themselves to death, and it's a huge cultural problem.

But closer to home...

It's lunchtime and Dave grabs a quick sandwich at his desk in front of the computer.

He's always first in and last out (because the right people notice these things). No amount of work is too much, just load him up- reliable Dave will get it done! He's never off sick, except for that half day in 2007 when he broke both arms and three ribs in a car accident. He had his laptop though so managed to meet those deadlines.

Dave's a manager, and putting in 60+ hours a week is the norm. You've got to pay your dues if you want to stand out in the dog eat dog world of promotional ladder climbing. What's he got to moan about? He drives a nice car, has a beautiful house, wife, 2.5 kids, a dog. All that stress is worth it, that's why he get's the big bucks!

Umm, maybe not. A recent survey seems to agree with a wisdom as ancient as the earth itself:

Apparently money can't buy happiness.

The "UK Happiness Survey 2017" found that the grass is only greener at the VERY top. The so-called "C-Suite" (people with a "C" in their job title: CEO, CIO, CFO etc earning in excess of £100,000 per year) are apparently the least stressed (really?) and happiest. At the other end, as you might expect, people earning less than £19,000 a year reported high stress levels.

(meant as a representation only: the survey data is not available to map accurately)

What interests me is what's happening in the middle. There seems to be a "sweet spot" of sorts around the £40-60,000 mark, where stress is relatively low and happiness relatively high. The layer under CEO level however were found to have it pretty bad too. High stress, low happiness.

Remuneration it seems, only goes so far. 

Now I'm not suggesting that all wages be capped at £60,000 to promote employee wellbeing, that's not going to win me many friends! My point is that there comes a point where money just doesn't compensate for the truly valuable things in life...like sleep, and learning and spending time with loved ones. 

Culture, both in wider society and within an organisation, can have a huge impact on how people view their role, and what is expected of them. 

The GSM London survey for example showed that attitudes to employment are changing.  

72 %

1 in 4 are not happy at work

It's a "Job" not a career

4 in 10 see their Job as a means to an end

To illustrate the power of culture, we are looking east.

Japan has been rocked by thousands of deaths related to work stress. On Christmas Day in 2015 for example, a 24-year-old advertising agency employee, Matsuri Takahashi, jumped to her death. She was massively sleep deprived having worked in excess of 100 hours of overtime in the month before her death.

This is far from an isolated incident. Devoting your life to your job and the company has been expected. Changes are coming, but workplace reform is painstakingly slow. "The Karoshi Line" of 80hrs overtime per month is not enforceable, and some household name brands allow hundreds of hours overtime per month.

In their Global Corporate Culture Policy document, one such company proudly proclaims:

"we will respect the abilities of every employee and inspire confidence"..."build a vibrant, enterprising company"..."endeavoring to enhance the environment in various ways to bring out the full potential of our employees."

Great stuff. where do I sign up! 

This same company however will allow staff to work up to 150 hrs overtime a month!

Rather than address the problem (eg workload and conditions) at source, staff often blame their own time management failings or lack of skill for not being able to complete work during work hours. 

This has lead to a new phenomenon called "Furoshiki" (or "cloaked overtime"; unreported work that staff take home with them) or not taking their annual leave allowance. 35% of Japanese employees don't even take ANY leave days!

And there are parallels here in the UK.

A survey by "Airtours" found that 40% of workers were guilty of not using up their full holiday allowances, and 1 in 6 workers admitted to having more than a full working week of holiday leftover.

168 million A/L days not taken
40 %
Don't use full A/L allowance
25% Didn't need or want it
36% Too much work
26% Denied-no cover

Dave, take a holiday? You must be joking... he's part of the furniture, they'll have to drag him out of here kicking and screaming!

Just last week I was speaking with a friend, a very successful businessman who now advises and mentors young startup businesses. He admitted he had never thought of the implied pressures that existed within his previous organisation. To keep on top of things he would often email his employees between 17:30 and 19:00, intending for the message to be waiting for the recipient in the morning.

More often than not he received a reply almost immediately. He didn't think anything of it until his wife pointed out that he was setting the tone and expectation within his company.

These workers were at home, with their families and for most, not replying when the boss calls is just too much to bear... So, down goes dinner, mummy can read your bedtime story, I've just got to send a quick email... and bam! "FUROSHIKI!" or as I like to call it: "presenteeism" at home!

To sum this all up then...

I have already written about how advancements in technology and a move to agile working means the workplace is now anywhere with a tinterweb signal​. But with this power comes great responsibility...(hmm, that might catch on!) The boundaries between home and work are becoming ever more blurry, with potentially very serious implications for our stress levels and wellbeing.

Thankfully "karoshi" is not an obvious problem in the UK. But I do wonder if "furoshiki" is creeping/has crept in?

If organisations have created circumstances where workload is so great that staff don't feel they can have some food away from a terminal, or can't have holiday leave due to a lack of cover, then regardless of what the mission statement says, your people are not at the heart of the business. 

Just because you say you care, doesn't mean you do. Actions speak louder.

"Leadership is not about being in charge, leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.    

Simon Sinek

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About the Author

Terry is Director and Head of Training at Oakwood. He helps clients promote a proactive, rather than reactive approach to both personal safety and the positive mental health of their staff. He has over 12 years teaching experience in these areas, and advises organisations in the development of appropriate risk assessment and policy.