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There is Such a Thing as Too Much Work

There is Such a Thing as Too Much Work

The American worker is a concept that is undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of this country’s strength. The American worker’s hardworking nature and the pursuit of the American Dream through honest work are something we can be proud of.

Yes, this may be an idealistic view of the American working population and it is very easy to veer this conversation in a more political direction, but that is not the topic of this article anyway.

Instead, our topic will be something that often happens as a result of this hardworking nature of the American worker – overwork. More precisely, our topic will be the negative effects of working too hard or asking of one’s employees to do this.

Karoshi or Taking Overwork to the Extreme

Karoshi is a Japanese term which literally translates as overwork death. It is a term which describes cases in which workers work so much over a very prolonged period of time that they actually overwork themselves to death.

The first reported case occurred in 1969 but it took 9 years before the actual term karoshi was invented. The actual medical reasons for death are usually stroke or heart attack which happen due to prolonged stress, dehydration and starvation diet.

One of the most notorious cases was one in which a person working for a food processing company worked 110 hours a week. Other cases are similarly unbelievable, but unfortunately true.

The Japanese government and some major companies have started taking the matter seriously some time in the 1980s and you can find out more about all of it on this government website.

This phenomenon is also “common” in Korea where it is called gwarosa, while in China it is on the rise and is referred to as gualaosi.

In these countries, karoshi has been made possible by idiosyncratic combinations of both national and individual cultures and economic realities which “encouraged” such unhealthy working practices. In the United States, there have been no reported cases of such extreme forms of overworking, but it would be naïve to think that the American workers are not asked to and, often, more than willing to work far too much.

How Much is Too Much?

The first time someone tried to crunch actual, hard data about working hours and productivity was during World War I when  the British Health of Munition Workers Committee tried to figure out how long the workers in ammo factories should work to be the most productive. They were able to get all the data they needed, both when it came to working hours and the amount of work individual workers did.

They discovered, among other things, that there was very little difference in overall output between a 56-hour week and a 70-hour week. They also discovered that shortening the week from 55 to 50 hours also had very little effect. They more or less figured out that 50 hours was the limit and that the productivity dropped significantly beyond that. They also found that Sundays off had a positive effect on the productivity. As this great article from Economist argues, intellectual work is probably even more affected by the length of workhours.

If you are interested in how the working week has changed in the U.S. over the years, then make sure to check out this comprehensive article. While the official work week is currently 40 hours a week in the United States, many people report working more than that, according to the 2014 poll by Gallup. Sure, the largest percentage (around 40%) do work 40 hours a week, but there are also plenty of people who work far more than that.

How Not to Work Too Much

If you happen to work for someone, it is essential that you are familiar with your worker’s rights and that no one is taking advantage of you. Of course, there will be situations in which you might be expected to put in more work than is usually the case, like for instance when you work for a startup. That being said, you need to know that no one can make you work inhuman hours.

If you are a freelancer, you should limit your work week in order not to burn out. As you have seen, it is not like working long hours will dramatically increase your output. It is better to work shorter hours, but fully concentrated.

In case you are a business owner yourself, helping people find that sweet spot between working enough hours and working productively should be one of your priorities. You should consider what kind of work your employees will be doing and whether they might benefit from fewer work hours or even flexible ones.

You might also want to consider investing in employee time clock software or similar solutions that will help you better plan your employees’ schedules. There are many other ways in which you can help your employees be more productive without asking them to stay after their workdays are over and you should always look into these first.

Closing Work

When boil it down, work should be about accomplishing something. If the amount of work you put in is actually becoming counterproductive, there is little sense in continuing.

It really is as simple as that.


Image sources:

Russell Lee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons