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Death by Karōshi!

Health-Warning: Steer Clear from the Toxic Culture of Over-Working!

Karōshi - 'Death by Overwork.'

It can kind of screw up things if you’re trying to overwork something.” 

~ Jeff Bridges (American actor, singer, and producer.)

The Japanese have a word for overworking someone to the point of killing them: Karōshi.

Caused by lack of rest, an overload of stress and anxiety, poor diet and intense exhaustion – Karōshican lead to a heart attack or stroke. The employee literally drops dead at their workplace because they were pushed too hard by their employers and weren’t given adequate and fair time off to regain their strength and both their mental and physical facilities.

Let’s start off by saying this:

There’s a difference between ‘working hard’ and ‘working smart.’

As a business owner (I still can’t get used to saying that) I often find myself meeting other business owners, entrepreneurs and the self-employed who project themselves as a ‘up-at-4am-work-hard-then-work-harder-still’ go-getter, where the art of ‘hustling’ and putting every waking hour into use to serve their companies, their brands, their services, their legacy.

It’s certainly a culture of “winning in the 21st Century”, where hammering 16 hours a day to move your career from zero to a thousand and onwards – one that I can fully understand, appreciate and relate to. However, I see it as incredibly dangerous, toxic and self-destructive; how can one truly be at their best and deliver great results if they’re mentally, emotionally and physically spent?

Working yourself through an eighty-hour workweek will only bring you closer to ‘death by overload’: Karōshi!

In Japan, this term emerged via an immense problem in the 70s, as job losses and cuts were on the rise, which resulted in spreading out the workload to those who managed to keep their positions and situations. That essentially meant that Japanese employees were working, on average, twelve hours a day.

Given the state of the labour market, such circumstances unfairly allowed leniency and justification to overwork and – worse, yet – underpay large droves of workforces. A perfect formula for stress, anxiety and exhaustion, all of which is the recipe for bringing down the beating heart of any poor grafter who is at the mercy from all of the above.

Nobody can deny the importance of hard work and that it is the foundation of success and prosperity, but – speaking for myself – I certainly have no desire to drop dead at my desk, on set, or behind the wheel driving to the next shooting location because I pushed myself towards Karōshi.

“Slave and save” is not a smart concept – sorry, hustlers, but it isn’t.

Your dream retirement won’t be fast-tracked nor will it serve you any reward if, due to self-grinding and personal undoing, you’re in a dire physical or mental state by the time it rolls around.

It’s just simply no way to live – I have always been a big believer in not waiting to retire if you want to enjoy your life; a piano could fall out of the sky and snuff you out this afternoon as you venture out for coffee. There’s enjoying what you do and then there’s enjoying yourself in between, which should hopefully give you that burning desire to get back into the thick of the chaos after a well-earned break, all refreshed, bright-eyed and bushy tailed.

Those of you reading this who are self-employed or own a start-up business, are likely to be thinking: ‘Easier said than done!’

Which I agree with to some extent – as having your own company is not too dissimilar from having a kid (not to devalue the hard work of a parent, by any means) as in if the kid is crying at two o’clock in the morning, you’re not going to roll over and go back to sleep thinking that the issue will resolve itself without your intervention or that it can wait until you’re awake. So finding time to relax and to get away from the hustle and bustle of running your own gig isn’t exactly something that allows you to pick and choose when is a good time to escape it all, hoping that it’ll all fly smoothly and safely on autopilot.

But, as we’re often reminded every day, we live in a spectacular digital age where connectivity, accessibility, information and communication resides at the very tips of our fingers – so packing up a laptop or signing in to your emails on your mobile phone whilst you sightsee or lounge by the pool is a doable option. Providing you’re not simply carrying your work around with you, but instead let that idea serve as a touch-and-go method to guarantee all things are ticking along as you would like them to and any immediate issues are quickly addressed with a phone call, app or message.

You get the idea.

Now, I remember my mind-destroying days as a full-time employee, working for some characters who had it in their heads that pressure, low morale and harassment was the way to get staff to do their bidding. To those kinds of bosses, I say this:

“Your staff are not robots, you a**hole!”

To the employers who think that pushing their staff to the breaking point to meet targets, deadlines and gain fast and effective results:

  1. You’re not decent people.
  2. Your results are going to be abysmal.
  3. You really need to rethink your work ethics, structures and priorities.

A lazy employee needs a reminder to get stuff done every once and awhile, maybe, but if you employ the right kinds of people, make them feel valued, appreciate their talents and hard work by letting them know as much, along with permitting room for leisure, relaxation and a culture that encourages enjoyment and individuality – you are going to experience wonders from them.

Look towards any successful business (except Amazon’s shoddily managed warehouses – let’s not dive down that rabbit hole), such as Pixar or Netflix where creativity, freedom of expression and enjoyment is encouraged to provoke great work and endeavours from their employees. That’s not a coincidence!

Whatever your thoughts are on this man, I do value his quote here:

“Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” 

– Richard Branson

A productive 4 hours is more useful than an overworked 12.

It may often feel as though there are never enough hours in the day to get things done and working for yourself makes you lose sight of where your focuses ought to lay.

The bottom line is that your business is finite; it will never get enough from you, nor you from it, as there is always the next phase, the next errand, the next step to taking it further, growing it and enforcing it. It’s usually worth penning out a short ‘to-do’ list and draw the line when those tasks are completed, otherwise before you know it, you’ve missed all three meals and your family has been completely neglected; you’ve strained yourself in every way and you’ll be at far less capacity for ability and concentration the following day.

If you’re good at what you do, then listening to your instincts is paramount to following through on a specific task of the day and that in itself can take you miles down the road than an entire day outpouring all energy and thought processes that only bought you a few inches of progress.

Overworking can be addictive!

I’m guilty of this, too – when you’re working for yourself, you’re in constant fear of losing out on the next paycheque, gig or opportunity because you’ve decided to call it a day when ‘said opportune moment’ appears around the corner but you were too occupied with tending to your loved ones, catching up on your favourite TV programme or indulging in a little coffee to notice.

Once, when I was brushing my teeth, I returned to find a missed call on my phone that was offering me a well-paid freelance role, which was snapped up by someone else because I had stepped away from the damn mobile for five minutes. Given the nature of the media, TV and film industry, nothing waits – it’s an impatient world – where moving onto the next best thing immediately without a pause for breath is the norm.

So my phone stays pathetically close-by at all times during working hours, but it goes back on the bookshelf after six o’clock in the evening, with the odd sporadic check-in – almost never discovering emails or messages that can’t wait until the next day – in order to keep myself from becoming fully addicted to the process of running my own business.

There are many that I know or met who don’t put the damn mobile down for the entire day and, for me, that must be turning their brain cells into pulp and sending their anxiety levels into the proverbial fray.

Death by Karōshi cometh!

Keep the Karōshi wolf at bay!

Closing thoughts – just use common sense.

There is no badge of honour in feeling exhausted all of the time, nor is there any prize for the most emotionally and psychologically beaten individual – you either wore yourself down for very little or only done so to make someone else rich and successful.

It’s not worth it.

The culture of today’s modern society has drummed into our heads this counterproductive concept that those who don’t work hard enough are considered a drain to the nation; a deadweight that deserves little to nothing and anyone who humours the thought of a holiday, time off, a sick day or a part-time position is a useless scumbag that must be shamed for all to besmirch.

We seem to celebrate the crazy notion that hurling ourselves into the meat-grinder of ‘all work and no play’, as we share our motivational quotes, thirty second pep talk videos of success stories and brag out loud how we pry ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn, do three dozen things that makes us better than everyone else – like some sociopathic self-pat on the back.

I enjoy and get pumped up by a great podcast or inspirational message as much as the next person – but my intuition has proven to be a spot-on judge of character and situation, so I’ve become far better at listening when that wise voice rises in the back of my mind telling me when something is of full of self-gratifying nonsense.

Instead, while I opt to make money doing what I love, I am now training myself to make better choices rather than to burnout and become useless to myself, as well as my business and everyone I know and work with.

With the money I make, I’ll look towards the future – mortgage, kids and all that noise – but I always aim to bask in the simple luxuries of life; a trip to a beautiful location, a lie-in on a Sunday morning, long walks with my girlfriend, spending time with friends, zone out with a mindless video game, engage with a film or TV series.

Whilst I do all of these, I’m itching to get back to work – I enjoy myself all over again, treating the working hours as a release of my pent-up creativity and stockpiled ideas that have accumulated through standard living and enjoying the world around me and the people closest to me. Inspiration and sources of influence find me, rather than I find them because life is ‘happening’ to me than the other way around.

Let’s try to reverse this poisonous ever-developing culture that we all live to be cogs in a machine that serves others than ourselves – it will simply prove to benefit everyone as a whole if we’re happier, well-rested and not about to drop dead at our desk as the death grip of Karōshi wraps around our white-collared throats.

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