There’s an irony in this piece that I’m writing. Because it’s 3am and I’m trying to meet my deadline – writing about the health implications of long working hours and overwork. Overwork so intense that it can kill.
The Japanese have a word for death from overwork: karõshi. If you Google it, the first link will lead you to a set of games – in Suicide Salaryman, "the goal of each level is counter-intuitive: you need to die… 50 clever levels and a boss fight at the end. We hope you have fun (killing yourself)!"
The first karõshi was reported in 1969 when a 29-year-old died of a stroke at work. Now, in Japan, the estimated number of victims of karõshi each year is more than 10,000, the same as the lives lost in car accidents. Karõshi’s Chinese counterpart, guolaosi, has 1,600 victims a day, according to China Radio International.
India doesn’t have a word for death by overwork because not many cases have been recorded. But we could well need such a word if we’re not careful.
"I don’t think our generation understands the importance of a work-life balance," says Shreya Soni, a management consultant at a firm in New Delhi, whose usual workday ranges from 16 to 18 hours.
Shreya was 19 when she started her internship and by 23, she left her job at Ernst & Young, London to come back to India. Somewhere along the line, the pressure caught up and she was left with low energy levels, mood swings and "almost a thousand white hairs". The recovery took nearly five years of eating healthy, yoga and switching to a less stressful job (even though her hours remain the same). "By the time you realise that the doctors were right, it’s almost too late," she says. Fatal instinct
Consider three cases in 2013: a 24-year-old PR professional in Beijing died of a heart attack at his desk at Ogilvy, the ad agency – he had been working overtime for a month before his death. A 21-year-old intern in London died of an epileptic seizure in the shower – he had worked for 72 hours in a row at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. A 24-year-old copywriter in Jakarta died shortly after tweeting about working 30 hours straight – she was sleep-deprived and had consumed too many energy drinks at the ad agency Young & Rubicam.
Earlier this year, a 24-year-old Indian intern at Goldman Sachs in San Francisco also fell victim to work pressure. Like most ambitious young people, he put in long hours to catch the attention of his seniors. After he died, his company laid out rules for interns, not allowing them to be at the office between 12 am and 7 am.
But few people follow such rules. There seems to be a tacit understanding that people who don’t put in long hours in the office are not fit for a serious career.
"It is glorified slavery," says 25-year-old investment banker Vidur Singhal who worked at Barclays in New York City as an analyst. "Companies can keep denying it, but being within the visible radius of the boss and coworkers is very important in the corporate culture. It adds credibility."
Singhal once put in a 100-hour workweek, but that was normal. Everyone did it. "The people who pulled all-nighters had rock-star statuses," he says, "The hours don’t come as a shock because you know what you signed up for. You realise what you put yourself through when you’re out of the system."
After quitting his job, he remembers an incident that he jokingly calls a "mild case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" – while he was on holiday with some friends. "I suddenly zoned out and frantically started looking for my BlackBerry – or an ‘electronic leash’ as we called it," – when I realised I was looking for a phone that wasn’t even there, I laughed it off. But later found out that this had happened to a lot of other friends as well."
Dr Roma Kumar, clinical psychologist at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, says, "excessive work is like an addiction". You get an adrenaline rush in a high-stress situation. Adrenaline, a stress response hormone, gives the body an instant physical boost and decreases the perception of pain.
Organisations thrive on the adrenaline rush: once addicted to the hormone, you cannot function without stress.
The first symptoms are irritability, loss of sleep and heightened awareness, and later lead to restlessness and a decrease in job satisfaction. An overload of adrenaline puts pressure on the heart muscle, and the hippocampus (the part of the brain that is in charge of emotions and memory) shrinks. This hormonal imbalance also leads to a lack of concentration, loss of sexual appetite and fertility issues.
Unlike other addictions, which carry social disapproval, this one is applauded with promotions.
Obesity is a huge fallout of overwork. To keep alert, people drink quantities of tea, coffee and energy drinks – and so consume quantities of sugar. And they don’t sleep enough. “I used to go to the gym before I started my articleship but suddenly there was no time,” says Aditi Dhingra, 24, about working at Deloitte. “When you need to choose between eating and sleeping or going to the gym, sleep is the obvious choice.”
The weight led to back problems and deteriorating eyesight. The doctors advised her to limit computer-screen-time to four hours a day. She dismissed this as “the amount of time you would spend watching movies anyway”. The result: more weight gain.
Dr Pradeep Chowbey, chairman, Max Institute of Minimal Access, Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, lists the ill-effects of overwork: You sit in an air-conditioned environment that ensures you don’t sweat – and prevents salt loss. And you use the lift instead of taking the stairs.
And you eat at odd hours, points out clinical nutritionist Ishi Khosla. “Eating at times that conflict with your body rhythms leads to weight gain,” she says.
Studies carried out by Harvard Medical School showed that the negative effects of sleep deprivation are so immense that people who are drunk can outperform those lacking sleep.
But it isn’t possible for all of us to work healthy hours all the time. "I worked 36 to 48 hours at a stretch for almost a decade, but I never gained weight or felt too tired to operate," says Dr Chowbey. His secret was power naps. So, don’t fight sleep. If you let your body rest – even for a short while – you become more productive and creative. "When your brain is too tired it dives right into deep sleep. Just put your head down on the desk."
Drink lots of water, advises Dr Kumar, and take short breaks to make conversation with your colleagues. "Women are usually better at coping with stress since they have a tendency to chit-chat. Men try to suppress the instinct to gossip and don’t admit to being stressed, considering it a trait of women," she points out.
So, take a break. Listen to some music. And don’t let karõshi become part of our vocabulary.
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From HT Brunch, July 26
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