Japan—that island super-nation that gave us such innovations as karaoke, Super Nintendo, and Ice Cucumber Pepsi—has a bit of a problem. You see, the people in Japan just work too damned hard. Whereas the typical American 40-hour work week consists of 20 hours of coffee breaks, 10 hours of unproductive meetings, 7 hours of sexually harassing your gorgeous secretary, and 3 hours of actual work, the Japanese work week averages 60-70 grueling hours. What happened was, a while back, Japan realized that the only way it was going to overtake the United States (a country with more than twice its population) in areas like technology, education, and pornography was to work roughly 17 times harder. And that’s just what they did then and continue to do to this very day.
Sadly for Japanese workers, working yourself to death has the unfortunate side effect of sometimes actually killing you as one unlucky engineer at Toyota found out recently. The occurrence of overtiming oneself into an early grave has become such a frequent happening in Japan in the last half-century that they’ve even invented a word to describe the phenomenon: karōshi which, roughly translated, means “happy fun hard-working death time.” There have been dozens of well-publicized karōshi deaths in Japan since the phrase was first coined around 1970, though many other cases likely go unreported as companies pay surviving family members quiet settlements. The typical karōshi death is a direct result of a heart attack or stroke caused by sheer overwork.
While 80-hour work weeks aren’t as common on this side of the Pacific, there are nonetheless plenty of Americans who are prime candidates for exiting this life karōshi style. You might know a few people like this yourself. Heck, you might even be someone like this—toiling thanklessly for the good of your employer with little regard for your own self-preservation. If that sounds like you, then there are some steps you might want to start taking right away to help ensure you don’t drop dead from overwork.
- Um, stop working so much, eh? If you don’t realize this is the best option, then you’re probably too far down the karōshi path to turn back now. Don’t worry, I’m sure your boss will take good care of your spouse after you’re gone, if you know what I mean.
- Get paid more. Believe it or not, knowing that you’re fairly compensated for your job can make it less stressful. If you’ve got plenty of money coming into the household, you won’t have as much to worry about outside of work, which means you’ll be able to pull off a few 80-hour work weeks here and there without dissolving yourself into a puddle of overworked goo.
- Get paid overtime. If you already get paid well for your first 40 hours, but you’re working 70 hours a week, then you’re giving away 30 hours of your time for free. Ask your company for overtime pay or work somewhere else that already offers it. You’ll still be working as hard, but you’ll know in the back of your mind that there’s a small reward for your efforts.
- Use your vacation time. Another good sign that you’re on the karōshi death spiral is if you have a habit of never using vacation and/or letting vacation time expire without using it. There are very few workplaces that give “too much” vacation time, so you should be using most or all of whatever you’re given.
- Change careers. Maybe your current job is too conducive to overwork. You might want to start looking for a job somewhere more relaxed. And if your line of work is such that you’ll be overworked no matter who your employer is, then it may be time to completely change careers to sometime a little less suicidal.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go show those Japanese that us American engineers won’t take their 80-hour work weeks lying down! Oh no no no, I’ll be sitting upright in my comfy chair, sipping my coffee… maybe take a long lunch, leave a bit early… take the rest of the week off…