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We’re Working Ourselves to Death — Literally

by Chris Poindexter

If you’ve been feeling more stressed and more anxious over the last few years, you’re not alone. If you feel like there’s just never enough free time, that’s not your imagination. Workers in the US have moved up just behind Asian countries when it comes to time spent at work. The Japanese put in so much time at the office there’s even a term, karoshi, which literally means “death from overwork,” and is typically linked to either a heart attack or stroke due to stress. In America we’re not there yet — but we’re headed down that road, and we’re not getting anything back for all the extra time we’re putting in at the office.

While it’s tempting to think industrious countries are more prosperous, that’s not the way it works out. I don’t think anyone would hold up Greece as an economic model for the rest of the world — yet it turns out the Greeks, statistically at least, put in more time at work than their US counterparts. Other countries that come close to the US when it comes to time at work include Portugal, Spain, and Italy. Again, that’s not the economic company you’d want marrying your daughter.

The Japanese put in so much time at the office there’s even a term, karoshi, which literally means “death from overwork…”

It’s also not clear if these extra hours at work include the time people spend checking their work email and messages when not at the office. For many people, being on the clock never seems to end. The accounting of time at work definitely does not include the time spent commuting back and forth, which averages 25.5 minutes each way. Just that fraction of an hour, five days a week, adds up to 204 unpaid hours a year fighting traffic to get to a job you hate, working for people who see you as little more than a necessary expense.

Instead of downtime, most people get done with the commute only to start their second job as an unpaid home handyman and part-time lawn maintenance pro. Add kids and school events to that mix, and anything resembling free time just disappeared from your life. Those are the best and most productive days of your lives; time you can never get back and you will sorely miss when you get older.

A Formula for Stress

Add in the complete lack of job security in the modern world, and we’re creating a near perfect formula for stressing out human beings. By some estimates, 40 million Americans suffer from chronic stress — but only 4 million will receive adequate treatment. Even at dismally low treatment rates, Zoloft and Paxil are the 7th and 8th most prescribed drugs in America; those are heavy-hitter psychiatric drugs with significant side effects, that patients have to be scaled off of if they decide to quit.

Dying Early

We’re not only being asked to work longer hours; we’re being asked to do it for a longer period of time. Suggestions that Americans should work longer before retiring ignore the statistical fact that working longer, pushing your mind and body to stay in that stress bath a few more years, could result in early death.


Work/Life Balance Is a Myth

To cope with the increasing stresses of daily life, Americans turn to a variety of sources for relief. Exercise, meditation, self-help books, and yoga are the drugs for those who don’t believe in better living through chemistry. For the most part those solutions don’t work, and that’s because they don’t address the true underlying problem, only the symptoms.

The real underlying problem is there is no such thing as work/life balance; the truth is you have to pick one or the other. In my experience, more leisure time usually means making career sacrifices like taking a job with less responsibility, working fewer hours, or taking a lower-paying job that’s closer to home. It means choosing a simpler way to live, buying a smaller house and a cheaper car, and downsizing both your expectations and your lifestyle. The sacrifices are very real, and it’s up to you to decide where your priorities come down. Your priorities, what’s important to you, will dictate those decisions your entire life.

The bottom line is something will have to give; we simply can’t keep putting more pressure on people to do more work for less money. There are already people laying awake in bed at 2 am, worried about work because losing their job would be an economic disaster. As a nation the path we’re on is unsustainable; you can only squeeze people so far before they break.

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