All work, no play

In a competitive environment, people are increasingly working more than 8 hours a day. What happens when overwork becomes the norm?


When it comes to managing work, it is important to set boundaries. Photo: iStockphoto
When it comes to managing work, it is important to set boundaries. Photo: iStockphoto

Tadashi Ishii, the president of Japan’s largest advertising company, Dentsu Inc., resigned in January after an employee, who was doing 100 hours of overtime a month, committed suicide.

It’s an all too familiar story in Japan. Every year, thousands of deaths related to overwork—from strokes, heart attacks and suicide—are reported in the island nation. So widespread is the problem that there’s a term for it—karoshi (Japanese for “death by overwork”). A 29 December article in The Guardian states: “About 2,000 people a year kill themselves due to work-related stress, according to the government, while other victims die from heart attacks, strokes and other conditions brought on by spending too much time at work.”

The signs aren’t too good in India either. According to a global survey by travel agency Expedia Inc. four years ago, India had the highest number of overworked people, after Hong Kong. Indians worked an average 42 hours over five days a week, just 2 hours short of Hong Kong’s. 

Some may argue that 42 hours is not much compared to the conventional 40-hour work-week, but it is now known that spending more than 8 hours in office on a regular basis is harmful not just for health but also productivity. Worse, even after leaving office, we are working in some way, taking phone calls or checking mail.

A 2015 survey by human resource consulting agency Randstad saw 74% of about 800 India Inc. employees, across sectors, saying their employers expected them to be available outside regular office hours; 78% said they were expected to be available on phone and/or email during holidays as well.

Even when it comes to taking vacations, Indians think twice. Expedia’s 2016 global “Vacation Deprivation” report, which was released in November, said over 70% of Indians cancelled or postponed vacation plans because of work.

The workaholic Japanese, meanwhile, took only half of the 20 holidays due to them (Indians took 15 of their 21 annual vacation days). On a one-week vacation, 37% of Indians checked email/voicemail at least once a day because it makes them feel less stressed, said the report. 

Technology has blurred the definition of working hours, says Monica Mahajan, associate director (internal medicine), Max Healthcare, Delhi. “Glancing at the glowing screen has become a habit of sorts. We tend to feel better not having a full inbox when we log on in the morning and assume work to be less by responding to that one mail in the middle of the night. But all this results in health problems like blood pressure, diabetes and heart problems, and sometimes even burnout,” she says.

Burnout can lead to chronic fatigue syndrome, which is defined as fatigue that persists for over six months and has no clear cause. “There are no specific tests for it. It can cause short-term memory impairment, muscle cramps, headache, altered bowel habits, sleep disturbance and joint pains,” warns Dr Mahajan, who has seen a 50% increase in “patients” of overwork in the last five years. Burnout is more common among doctors, nurses and people in the service industry, she says, adding, “Patients generally complain about how because of work their interpersonal relationships are suffering, they suffer from sleep disorders, depression and face difficulty in concentrating.”

After hours 

How should overwork be defined? Does working beyond the mandatory 8 hours a day qualify as overwork? Overtime is one objective measure of overwork, says Amit K. Nandkeolyar, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. “When one is fatigued, sleep-deprived, making errors at the workplace (reduced quality of work), one is overworked,” he explains.

Medically, there’s no definition of overwork, says Dr Mahajan. “Unfortunately, we do not have any robust Indian data on working hours, but Indians do work an average 8.5 hours a day, when it shouldn’t be a second beyond 8. Working hours are longer and usually spread across six days a week in urbanized regions,” she adds.

John Pencavel, a labour economics professor at Stanford University in the US, who has been studying the concept of overwork for years, believes that a better way to gauge this is the point when performance in an activity starts deteriorating. “It is that point where the performance increase is so small and unsatisfactory that it is evident to all,” explains Pencavel on email. 

When there is a lot to do, it may seem logical to work as many hours as possible to clear the backlog. But that isn’t productive, says Graham Allcott, founder of the UK-based Think Productive, which offers executive workshops and consultancy services on boosting productivity. “When it comes to managing work, it is important to set boundaries and change the mindset about ‘time off’,” he suggests (see “Work smart”). Sticking to “time off” is essential in today’s well-connected times, points out Nandkeolyar. “There needs to be a definite demarcation between work and personal life. You should spend time with friends and family, spend an hour each day on something that has little to do with one’s paid employment,” he says. 

Bad or good?

If the drawbacks of working beyond 8 hours are largely well accepted, then why isn’t that limit being observed? The 2013 Expedia survey pointed out that many Indians don’t take enough leave “just to be in the boss’ good books” and “would like to be present in all key decisions of the company”.

It’s all about priorities and how much importance you attach to work, says Dr Mahajan. “But work-life balance is extremely important in today’s time; if you don’t realize it now, you definitely will some day. Will you still be in your office chair if your health goes for a toss?” she asks.

Companies aren’t always as receptive to the concept of fewer working hours as they could be, says Pencavel. “For many years, it was believed that work was good; not working was equated with sloth and indolence. Nowadays, managers and owners of businesses often accept that working fewer hours may be beneficial to employees, but they are not accepting of the idea that owner-managers benefit from their employees working fewer hours.”

Nandkeolyar adds: “Maybe we are still thinking of work from a manufacturing set-up (point of view) where production is a linear function of time spent at the workplace. Partly, the problem arises from the prevailing work culture at companies. If you have to be seen working long hours at work, it’s difficult to go home early.” 

Working too much affects the quality of work, defeating the whole point of the exercise. As Jason Fried and David Hansson say in their book Rework, workaholics “aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done.”

Work smart

Ways to stay productive, always

Break everything down into smaller goals. It’s easier to measure your productivity in each hour or day, rather than seeing your work as one big daunting task. Experiencing completion will keep you motivated.

Set boundaries. It’s important to set boundaries both with your boss and yourself. Indicate which days you are ready to work late and when you must leave on time.

Turn off distractions. Email, social media and the phone can take up more of your headspace than necessary. Set “out of office” notifications on the busiest days, and don’t be afraid to let your phone go to voicemail.

Manage your attention, not your time. We are not always at our best, so do your hardest work when you are at your most energetic, and save the simple stuff, like administration or email, for times in the day when you feel tired.

By Graham Allcott of the UK-based Think Productive 

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