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American Karoshi

United States

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American karoshi

Photo: Still Pictures

Karoshi, or working yourself to death, was thought
to be a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. But, as Matthew Reiss
explains, Americans are no strangers to it.

A thin, 40-something man with scattered white hair and wan complexion looked up from his notebook in a church basement on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

‘Hi, I’m Emerson,’ he said, ‘and I’m addicted to work.’

‘Hi, Emerson,’ answered his companions.

Emerson is a lecturer at a major university in the New York area. In addition to his course load, he developed two new classes last semester, submitted a book-length manuscript for publication and served as executive director of a small not-for-profit corporation. ‘In my own eyes I’m a lazy sloth,’ he declared. He even agonized over coming to this evening’s Workaholics Anonymous meeting. He couldn’t shake the thought of running home to update his telephone list. ‘I just feel compelled to do this,’ he said. ‘It’s insanity.’

Emerson is not alone. His condition is a product of the society that surrounds him. Joan Feldman of the investment firm of Keefe, Bruyette and Woods, barely got out of Tower 2 of the World Trade Center after the first airliner crashed into Tower 1 on 11 September. While hurrying down the stairs from the 88th floor, she heard an announcement over the Center’s public-address system ordering employees back to work. ‘I would be dead,’ said Ms Feldman when asked what would have happened if she had obeyed.

America’s obsession with work has reached epidemic proportions, according to Dr Bryan E Robinson, family therapist and author of the 1998 book, Chained To the Desk (New York University Press). He believes that workaholism is a disease that kills people and ruins families. People obsessed with work often find their way to the city that never sleeps. In New York, time is money, and since one’s worth is measured by ability to earn, overwork isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law of supply and demand. According to psychiatrist Dr Jay B Rohrlich, in Hollywood where one’s appearance is paramount, the same problems might manifest themselves in anorexia. But in New York, where working excessively to achieve success is the norm, people go overboard. ‘When your drive controls you, instead of you controlling it, it can be the sign of underlying problems,’ he points out. But mention at a job interview that you’ll be in at nine and leaving at five and see who hires you.

That equation is reinforced by new technologies which makes workaholics of all of us. When Marilyn Machlowitz wrote Workaholics in 1980, things were very different. ‘We didn’t have faxes, cell phones, cell phones with e-mail, beepers, Palm Pilots. Workaholics used to be the people who would work anytime, anywhere. What has changed is that it has become the norm to be on call 24/7. Now that’s something that doesn’t cause anyone to blink. Globalization has really changed a lot of our work habits.’ People in the financial industry check in with London when they arrive for work in the morning and don’t stop until the Nikkei starts up at eight or nine in the evening. ‘The demand has increased to a point where it may be faster than people are hardwired to handle. And we haven’t seen all that high-tech has to offer yet, either.’ Twenty years ago we had enforced downtime, noted Ms Machlowitz: ‘If we had to send a draft of a document to someone, we had time before they received it in the mail, read it and mailed it back demanding changes. That time has collapsed to nothing. “Right away” has a new definition.’

Despite 14 years of 80-100 hour work weeks for a Wall Street brokerage house, Jennifer, a stylish woman with a tasteful gold bracelet and Chanel dress, was not willing to admit that she was suffering from a ‘disease’ until two years ago. ‘I felt like I had on golden handcuffs,’ she said. ‘There was nothing else I could do to make so much money. So I kept at it until I was 35 years old, with no life, no personality and tons of money.’ Jennifer’s accessories give credence to Dr Robinson’s statement that ‘workaholism is the best-dressed problem of the 20th century’.

A study recently conducted by the health insurer Oxford Health Plans found that one in five Americans show up for work whether they’re ill, injured or have a medical appointment. This same obsession keeps one in five Americans from taking their vacation – a failure which has been found to put individuals at risk of early death. ‘Vacationitis’ may come from fear of returning to find someone else at your desk, or the idea that everything will collapse in your absence.

Workaholics Anonymous publishes a list of tell-tale signs including: working more than 40 hours a week; taking work with you to bed, on weekends and on vacation; talking about work more than any other subject; believing it’s okay to work long hours if you love what you do; thinking about working while driving, falling asleep or when others are talking.

To New Yorkers, of course, these are simply the habits of successful people. To celebrate Labor Day, 3 September, the International Labour Office released findings that after passing the Japanese as the world’s most overworked population in the mid-1990s, Americans have pulled way ahead of the pack. Americans now work an average of 1,979 hours a year, about three-and-a-half weeks more than the Japanese, six-and-a-half weeks more than the British and about twelve-and-a-half weeks more than their German counterparts.

Patrick Cleary of the National Association of Manufacturers told the New York Times, ‘We don’t see this necessarily as bad news at all,’ pointing out that the increase in hours coincided with a strong economic performance. Companies often compensate for America’s chronic shortage of skilled laborers with demands of forced overtime. But while an inflated salary can dull the pains of overwork, excessive job stress can cause permanent degenerative damage to the heart.

If someone is working 14 hours a day, that person is not going to be eating right

In a precedent-setting settlement, New York telephone workers won limitations on the Verizon phone company’s policy of forced overtime. When asked whether any workers had ever died as a result of excessive work stress or work hours, strike negotiator Patrick Gibbons of the Communications Workers of America said he could only remember a couple of colleagues who had dropped dead on the job during his 30 years as a field technician. ‘Lots of others,’ he said, ‘had heart attacks after work.’ Working obsessively is often rewarded with promotions, raises and bonuses, thus making one’s own recognition of workaholic tendencies difficult. But the law of the land grants virtual immunity to the corporate sector and employers for treating their human resources like race horses.

In Japan, if a ‘salary man’ is found slumped over his keyboard in the morning, it triggers survivors to call for a karoshi investigation to determine whether the death was caused by overwork. In New York the coroner would call the same condition heart failure.

Cardiac disease is a complex malady affected by diet, activity, smoking, drinking and stress – and it occurs in epidemic proportions in the US. But coroners and judges refuse to entertain the notion that inordinate work stress can cause death, despite well-established case histories. ‘If someone is working 14 hours a day, that person is not going to be eating right,’ said one physician at New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center, who asked that his name not be revealed. ‘They’re not going to have time for a nice home- cooked meal. That means fast food and increased cholesterol. Secondly, the time constraints will not permit them to exercise. And if the person is a workaholic, often they’re going to be a smoker or, if they’re really stressed out, a drinker.’

An explosion in karoshi cases accompanied Japan’s economic boom in the early 1980s. Since karoshi was legally recognized in the 1980s, 30,000 Japanese have been diagnosed as victims. The large number of work-related deaths spurred Tokyo to legislate a national pension system for surviving members of karoshi victims’ families. But Washington continues to fail to react to such stimuli.

US courts give no quarter to damage claims by overworked Americans. The law seems to suggest that if everyone is overworked to the point of debilitation, no-one therefore warrants compensation. This makes America’s Protestant work ethic a Puritan plague and affirms anthropologist Marshall Sahlins’s comment that the market system has handed down to human beings a sentence of ‘life at hard labour’.

Matthew Reiss [email protected] is
a journalist based New York City.

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