Friday, August 23, 2013


A recent conversation with an old friend prompted me to dust off some neurons regarding my past life. The result was a shocking recollection about the way I used to live.

The conversation began when my friend related a story he had read about a young investment banker in London who recently died at age 22. This tragic death followed three days of working without rest. Granted, the man may well have had some underlying or undiagnosed health issue. But it sounds as though he had simply been working too much.

Extreme overwork has become common, even in other part of the world. In Japan, it even has its own name: karoshi (which translates literally from Japanese as "death from overwork"). The first case was reported in 1969 when a 29-year-old male worker in the shipping department of Japan's largest newspaper died of a stroke. In the 1980s, several high-ranking Japanese business executives died without any sign of illness and the press took notice. Since 1987, Japan has tracked the statistics related to karoshi deaths.

As Japan's economy continued to boom and workers began to crave success, the combination began to claim scores of ambitious executives. Mix that ambition with the Asian tradition of accepting personal blame for failure, and the result has been perilous.

A few years ago, I lived in Northern Virginia and worked inside the Washington, D.C. beltway. It was an exciting experience with an amazing job, earning significant kudos and money. But life was tough and after eight years I bowed out to a simpler, happier life in the Midwest.

I saw first hand the impact of overworking. It stressed workers. It stretched and contorted family life into a strangely misshapened creature. In the extreme, it even caused health problems and claimed lives. Overwork was a monstrous creature then and I can only imagine that the economic down turn has exacerbated the situation. The fear of failure and related job loss must have caused additional pressure on highly-motivated workers.

In nearly every work environment, there are certain workers who will find the situation to be stimulating. They thrive on the challenge of proving themselves in such a demanding atmosphere. Many large businesses are anxious to hire such "go-getters" who have likely spent their formative years overachieving at every turn. These young hires want to prove that they can make it in the big world and are willing to do whatever it takes to impress their supervisors. They may actually thrive under the expectation of failure, boosted by working long overtime and getting results at all costs.

People who I have known in such circumstances actually want to be challenged. They consider the experience to be a trial by fire and are willing to endure this test period. Some will pass and be accepted, perhaps only later to suffer the consequences. For those who don't pass and either resign or are encouraged to leave, they will no doubt find success in some other field, perhaps one that allows for a little more balance between life and work.

Balance appears to be sadly absent from the corporate world today. I once worked with a man who happened to be out of the office when a family emergency occurred. His wife had been taken ill in the middle of the day. When the school called to advise the man and found him absent, they left a message asking if he could arrange for someone to pick up his daughter from school. When the man returned that afternoon and got the message, he did not know the name of his daughter's teacher, what grade she was in or even the name of her school. He scrambled, phoning friends and arranging for help, but the entire office was a bit surprised that he had so little involvement with his own children.

I knew of many such stories.

People worked nearly every spare hour of nearly every day, including weekends and holidays. It was not uncommon to go into the office on both Saturday and Sunday of nearly every weekend. I have worked until early morning (5:00 a.m.) on more than a few occasions. These were usually situations structured by an approaching deadline, so we knew that the end would eventually arrive. And, of course, we were well compensated, to say the least.

But money and appreciation do not remedy fatigue and exhaustion. Thinking back now, I marvel that I could survive such a relentless work life. A bigger question in hindsight is: why.

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