It’s the Japanese term for “death from overwork.”
In China it’s called Gualaosi, in Korea, Gwarosa. It’s estimated around 500,000 Chinese succumb to this, each year.
In Australia the closest word we have is burnout, and while the economic cost is measured, the very human cost of illness or premature death is not. (Please correct me if I’m wrong in thinking this.)
In 2021 the World Health Organisation and International Labour Organisation published a landmark study that found 745,000 people died in 2016 from stroke and heart disease associated with working 55 hours a week or more.
This is a 29% increase since 2000.
In other words, working more than the recommended 35-40 hours/week i.e., 55 hours or more, puts you at 35% higher risk of having a stroke and 17% higher risk of dropping dead from a heart attack.
How many hours a week are you putting in?
This is a global problem and despite greater awareness of its existence and some of the factors leading to it, the problem is far from going away.
The number of those reporting burning out is growing.
In just the last 12 months there has been a 5% increase in Australians reporting symptoms.
Yes, Covid has had a hand here, especially for those working from home where the average increase in hours worked is between 2-3 hours a day.
While the pandemic has dramatically changed the way many people work, the WHO has made it abundantly clear that,
Working 55 hours or more a week is a serious health hazard.
Let’s not forget this place and thing we call work consumes an awful lot of our adult life.
Around 90,000 hours.
Working hard is one thing, but working too hard to the extent it makes you sick, or potentially kills you is not acceptable and indicates that the line of “duty of care” has been crossed.
The Karoshi hotline in Japan currently receives between 100-300 calls a year for victims of Karoshi to seek government compensation for workplace-induced stress, disease, or disability.
Around 200 claims a year are accepted by the Japanese Government, but campaigners seeking more action to prevent karoshi, say this does not reflect of true numbers of deaths that they believe could be as many as 10,000.
The big question is. Why do you work?
You work because,
You need the money.
You have the skills to make a useful contribution.
You like getting out of the house and doing something different.
You consider your colleagues your friends.
You enjoy your work, maybe you even love it.
But is work ever worth risking your life for?
The Karoshi hotline was established in Japan back in 1988 but the issue of overwork had been recognised long before back in the sixties, with the first recorded death of a 29-year-old man from a stroke while at work in 1969.
But it was the much-publicised death of 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi in 2015 that roused the Japanese public to start demanding change.
Is overwork an issue for you?
Why do you overwork?
Only you can answer that question because there will be a few contributing factors, unique to your own circumstances.
Look at the following list to see if you recognise yourself in any of these.
- Puts everyone else’s needs first.
- Ignores own self-care.
- Fear of judgement, for being seen as less than committed or dedicated to the cause.
- Compliant with the workplace culture, even though you hate it.
- Fear of failure, especially if you are in a start-up, a solopreneur or a small business owner feeling responsible to your employees and clients for ensuring the business stays afloat.
- Work is how you identify who you are.
- Under financial pressure to pay your bills and the mortgage.
- Hiding how many hours of overtime you’re really doing (and not getting paid for).
- Not wanting to let anyone down.
- Believing that success only comes from lots of hard work, and you must work harder than anyone else.
Did I miss anything?
Well, yes, because while an individual’s work attributes could increase your risk, the biggest factor is the existing workplace culture.
Overwork leading to illness or death is a sign of a cultural failure.
If you know you’re working too hard, for too many hours, what can you do about this?
- Acknowledge the problem.
Carrying on with carrying on perpetuates the problem, putting yourself at risk and does no one any favours.
- Reflect on your own work practices.
Have you developed the habit of overwork, and no one has challenged you as to whether this is good for you?
Have you developed workplace practices that are inefficient, and time consuming that could, with a couple of small tweaks reduce some of the burden?
There are no brownie points for continually reinventing the wheel.
Are you too fiercely independent and confident in your own abilities to give yourself permission to ask for help?
- Ask yourself, what would it be like NOT to overwork?
How would you feel?
What difference would it make to your productivity and energy levels?
How would it be not to be perpetually exhausted?
So, what is stopping you from cutting back, choosing to do less, because you know how much better you’ll feel, how much more you’ll get out of those other important facets of your life, to be happier and healthier?
The truth is, changing yourself, let alone the system is hard.
Habits, mindsets, and belief systems can get in the way of what you know is important to your well-being and that of others.
That’s why working with a coach, an experienced facilitator to help guide you through the process is vital.
It’s hard to do it alone.
Every summer in Australia, we are reminded to ensure that our Bushfire Prevention and Management Plan is reviewed and updated.
In just the same way, every workplace great and small can put together their own Burnout Prevention and Management Strategy where everyone gets a say, is asked what is needed and steps put in place not just to start the process, but to regularly review and continue to refine this because it’s recognised as an important business priority.
Shifting the pendulum where joint responsibility for fixing the problem is taken by the individual and the organisation.
Because illness or death from overwork in 2022 is morally unacceptable.
We can do so much better than this, and we can.
By coming together to say enough is enough.
By remembering you are human and function at your best when you acknowledge your physiological and psychological limits.
Performance, as Tony Schwartz from the Energy Project reminds us, is not measured by the number of hours you stay chained to your desk.
It’s the energy you bring to everything you do.
Less can be so much more.
Let’s do this and make burnout redundant.
Are you with me on this?
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author specialising in burnout prevention, psychological safety and creating great places to work. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase.