In general, being a hard worker is a respectable trait to have. Regardless of your background, culture, or political affiliations, we tend to value and celebrate those who are willing to put in the extra effort into whatever they do for a living. It’s not easy. It can be incredibly stressful at times. Then again, most things worth doing are.
I certainly remember plenty of times when I worked hard. Going all the way back to high school, I can recall days in which I spent nearly every waking hour grinding away at something or another, be it schoolwork, chores, or a part-time job. I remember being drained when all was said and done, but I was ultimately stronger because of it.
That being said, there is a certain threshold in which hard work ceases to be about productivity and just becomes downright damaging. I suspect many people have approached or cross that threshold at some point in their lives, whether it’s with school or a career. However, I don’t think enough people appreciate just how damaging excessive work can be.
This brings me to Japan and their legendary, albeit infamous, work culture. Think back to the longest, hardest day you had at school or your job. In Japan, that’s basically Tuesday. Work for them is not just some 9-to-5 gig you do for a paycheck. It’s a sizable chunk of their lives, more so than American or European workers.
Working overtime, sleeping at the office, and sacrificing for the company aren’t seen as above and beyond. That’s the standard. Yes, it’s a very high standard, but let’s not forget these are real people pushing themselves in extreme ways to meet that standard.
While this high emphasis on work has helped Japan become one of the best economies in the world, it does have a dark side. It’s so prevalent and common, in fact, that the Japanese even have a word for it. It’s called Karoshi, which translates to “overwork death.”
It’s exactly what it sounds like, but it’s actually more complex than that.
It’s a serious ongoing issue in Japan. You don’t have to look far for horror stories about what happens to people who succumb to Karoshi. There are real cases of otherwise healthy 31-year-old men dying of heart failure after regularly working 14-hour days for 7 years straight.
Take a step back and appreciate that kind of strain.
You work so long and so hard that your heart gives out.
It’s one thing to work until you’re tired and sore, but it takes a special kind of strain for your heart to just give out.
As bad as that is, this isn’t the only way Karoshi manifests. Beyond the long hours at the office and the constant stress that comes with it, you can see other signs throughout Japan. It’s not that uncommon to see people asleep on the streets or on park benches. It’s as normal as seeing someone taking selfies.
For a more in depth look on how this unfolds in Japan, check out this video. It’s what got me interested in this topic and inspired me to bring it up.
Now, I’m not looking to denigrate or demean another country’s work culture. I understand that not every society sees work the same way or approaches it in a way people from my part of the world would recognize. At the same time, it’s hard to overlook the issues that result in people dying of heart attacks before they’re 40.
It’s something the Japan is trying to address, but changing ingrained culture isn’t easy. Changing peoples work habits isn’t easy, either. People are set in their ways. I say that as someone who regularly struggled with Spanish quizzes in high school, but never though to adjust study habits.
It’s also an issue I think highlights and important lesson for any society that emphasizes hard work. Yes, it’s generally good, but there are limits. There comes a point where the work is more valued than the person doing it and when you reach that point, the well-being of the person becomes an afterthought.
Those who claim that if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life may beg to differ. To them, I would remind them that the human body doesn’t recognize whether or not you’re doing something you love or something you hate. It just knows when it’s being strained to the point where it starts failing.
I feel like this will become more relevant in the coming years. The events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have already significantly affected the workplace and I’m not just referring to the rise of telework. If anything, these events have accelerated the pace of automation. The jobs that used to require all that grinding are becoming less and less necessary.
What will that mean for workers in general?
What will that mean for work culture like that of Japan?
Will it make Karoshi better or worse as certain jobs become more scarce or unnecessary?
These are difficult questions to answer right now, but I suspect that these trends won’t change peoples’ inclination for hard work. It’s just a matter of where that effort will be directed and how we’ll balance it out with the health of the individual. That’s a balance that we still need to strike, no matter how many jobs get automated.
Work/life balance isn’t just a popular buzzword. It’s critical to those who want to both be productive and live fulfilling lives. If you’re life is all work, then is it really living in the grand scheme of things? If anything, the Japanese phenomenon of Karoshi offers insight into what happens when there is no balance. The line between working hard and working yourself to death can get blurred at times, but it’s worth making that line just a little bit clearer, if only to navigate it more effectively.