All work and no play makes Jack a dead boy (or, how to avoid “death by overwork”)

If you want to rally your team to achieve your business goals, you should probably take a look at the levels of stress that you subject your workers to, and do something to improve the situation.

Entrepreneurs and business leaders in general typically have big dreams, big visions and big goals, and achieving those dreams, visions and goals can often take a lot of hard work.  In pursuit of success, many business leaders often take a “full steam ahead” approach to running their organizations encouraging their employees to burn the proverbial candle at both ends by coming in early, staying late and even working over the weekends. While the intent of this approach to building your business may be well-intentioned, it may backfire in a big way, causing you, your employees and your business more harm than good. Here’s why.

Arianna Huffington is on a mission. One that she probably wouldn’t have expected at the beginning of her career. Huffington is best known as the co-founder of the eponymously-titled Huffington Post, an online news and opinion magazine. Huffington started the site in 2005 and worked hard, reportedly up to 18 hours a day, to build HuffPost (as it is affectionately called by its readers) into a highly respected media empire. But on April 6 of 2007, Huffington’s life took an unexpected and dramatic turn. While at home, Huffington collapsed, hit her head on a desk and passed out. Huffington woke up, terrified, with a broken cheekbone in a pool of blood. After weeks of medical testing, her doctors came to one conclusion. Huffington had collapsed, not from a stroke, heart attack or tumor, but from – exhaustion! As it turns out, Huffington was facing a personal health crisis – one that had been brought on by overwork and not getting enough rest.

That moment changed her life, and she began paying more attention to her health and, in particular, sleeping more – bucking the popular belief that hard work and success can only come at the expense of having a good night’s sleep. By 2011, HuffPost, had grown so much in popularity that AOL offered to buy the business from Huffington for US$315 million. Huffington accepted the offer, but stayed on as Editor-in-Chief. Many people in the business community believe that sleep gets in the way of success. But, this belief certainly wasn’t held by Huffington following her collapse. In fact, Huffington claims that “the success at the Huffington Post happened after I started taking care of myself.”

Since Huffington’s change in lifestyle, she has written a number of books. One book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, draws on scientific research to demonstrate the positive impact that meditation, mindfulness, unplugging and giving back can have on people’s lives. Another, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, doubles as a wake-up call about the dangers of sleep deprivation and a call to action for people to improve their personal and professional lives through the power of sleep.

In 2016, Huffington left HuffPost to start a new company called Thrive Global, a well-being platform that helps individuals, companies and communities unlock their full potential and improve their well-being and performance through science-based solutions. Huffington’s work is timely. From analysts on Wall Street to entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and doctors interning at hospitals around the world, working 16+ hours a day to the point of exhaustion has become somewhat of a badge of honor for those engaging in the practice. But a badge of honor doesn’t reduce the toll that working long hours can have on the body.

The high cost of workplace stress

Although some research suggests that moderate levels of stress can increase productivity, there is no debate that dealing with continuously high levels of stress can cause severe disruption to the body and mind. According to the American Psychology Association, “an extreme amount of stress can take a severe emotional toll. While people can overcome minor episodes of stress by tapping into their body’s natural defenses to adapt to changing situations, excessive chronic stress, which is constant and persists over an extended period of time, can be psychologically and physically debilitating.”

People suffering from persistently high levels of stress can suffer from a range of symptoms, including headaches, chest pains, fatigue, changes in sex drive, anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation, irritability, anger, sadness and depression. These effects can take a toll on the organization in the form of low levels of productivity, decreased employee engagement as well as high levels of absenteeism, presenteeism and employee turnover.

Research conducted by the folks over at, whose product is a versatile work management platform that helps employees do more of their best work, revealed that 94% of workers experience stress at work, and almost a third say their stress is high to unsustainably high. While over a quarter of the study’s respondents reported a decline in work quality due to stress, many of the respondents noted that the effects of workplace stress spilled over into their personal lives. 54% reported that stress from work negatively affected their home life at least once a week – with some respondents reporting that it affected their home lives every day. And over 50% also experienced sleep loss due to workplace stress.

According to a study by the Queen’s School of Business and the Gallup Organization on employee engagement, “disengaged workers had 37 percent higher absenteeism, 49 percent more accidents, and 60 percent more errors and defects”, contributing to US$450-500 billion a year in losses in productivity. Workplace stress has been noted as a key contributor to low employee engagement. According to a report entitled Mind The Workplace, published by Mental Health America:

“High levels of stress often result in emotional exhaustion, which in turn leads to ‘deviant’ behaviors like missing work, increased hostility towards other staff and management, and entertaining workday distractions. Thirty-three percent of survey respondents reported missing work because of workplace stress. For 35 percent of respondents, the days ‘Always’ missed amounted to three and five days a month, while close to a quarter (24 percent) reported ‘Always’ missing 6-20 days. Ten percent of respondents reported missing 21-30 days. When workplace stress was not resulting in absenteeism it still had significant impact on employee’s engagement with their workplace and work.”

A 2015 Harvard Business Review article written by Emma Seppälä and Kim Cameron and entitled Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive notes that workplace stress may be responsible for losses of more than US$500 billion in the U.S. economy and that 550 million workdays are lost each year due to stress on the job. The article goes on to note that 60% to 80% of workplace accidents are attributed to stress, and that workplace stress has been “linked to health problems ranging from metabolic syndrome to cardiovascular disease and mortality”.

Death by overwork

Workplace stress is even linked to death. On August 15, 2013, CCTV captured 21-year-old Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern Moritz Erhardt entering his apartment. He never came out. Erhardt was later found dead in his shower after having an epileptic seizure. Erhardt had just finished working for 72 hours in a row, reportedly with no sleep. Erhardt was a victim of the investment banking culture where interns work ridiculously long hours – reportedly up to 100 hours per week – in an effort to break into the industry.

The problem of overwork is especially acute in Japan. The Japanese have even coined a term for it. ‘Karōshi’ (roughly translated as “death by overwork”) refers to the epidemic of employees committing suicide or suffering from heart failure or stroke as a result of working long, stressful hours. In 2013, Japanese reporter Miwa Sado died of heart failure after clocking 159 hours of overtime in one month with just two days off. And in the spring of 2015, Dentsu, one of Japan’s largest, most prestigious (and most demanding) advertising agencies, welcomed a new recruit by the name of Matsuri Takahashi. Takahashi reportedly ended up working 100 extra hours each month at the agency. Within a few months, she was dead. On Christmas Day of 2015, Matsuri Takahashi committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the building where she lived. She was another victim of Karōshi.

Unfortunately, Karōshi is so common that it can be registered as an official cause of death on death certificates in Japan. So widespread is the issue, that in Japan, if a death is judged to be Karōshi, the victim’s family may be eligible for compensation from the government and from the company where the victim worked. But, such payouts are certainly of little comfort to the families of Karōshi victims, who would much rather have their loved ones alive than receive a large monetary settlement as a result of their deaths.

Fortunately, thanks to well-being advocates such as Arianna Huffington, many companies are taking a serious look at how they operate and the levels of stress they subject their employees to. According to an article in The New Yorker, Goldman Sachs has restricted its junior investment-banking analysts from working on Saturdays and also restricted all analysts from working more than seventy to seventy-five hours a week. Bank of America Merrill Lynch now requires analysts to take four weekend days off a month. And Credit Suisse has barred its analysts from being in the office on Saturdays.

With an estimated 2,000 Japanese a year killing themselves due to work-related stress, and a fifth of Japan’s workforce reportedly working more than 80 hours of overtime each month, the Japanese government has also taken steps to address the issue. In 2018, Japan’s parliament passed a law which restricts employees from working more than 100 hours a month. Companies that break the law are subject to fines and penalties. Some companies have taken a more creative approach to combat the problem of overworking. Japan Post Insurance turns off the lights in its offices at 7:30 pm, forcing its employees to pack up and go home. The Japanese government has also launched a campaign called Premium Fridays, where employers are encouraged to let their employees off a few hours early on the last Friday of every month. The campaign is being spearheaded by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry and the Japan Business Federation, Keidanren, a business lobbying group. However, one year after the campaign’s launch only 11% of Japan’s workforce have participated in the program.”

Cases like Huffington’s, Erhardt’s, Miwa’s and Matsuri’s demonstrate the impact that stress can have on people’s lives. Of course, such cases are admittedly a bit on the extreme side, but they do a great job of demonstrating that, when left unchecked, overwork can have a disruptive impact on team members, their families and their co-workers.

Chances are, if you’re an entrepreneur, business owner or business executive trying to survive a crisis, you can probably pat yourself on the back for not causing your employees to collapse from exhaustion or take their own lives as a result of stress-related factors. But even if you aren’t driving your employees to the point of death, your organization may still be inflicting a level of stress that can lead to poor quality work, excessive absenteeism or downtime – all of which can decrease the quality of life of your employees, decrease your profit potential and make it harder for you and your business to survive.

If you want to rally your team to achieve your business goals, you should probably take a look at the levels of stress that you subject your workers to, and do something to improve the situation. Encourage your team members to get enough sleep and to take periodic breaks from their work to recharge their batteries. If your culture permits, organize virtual group exercise sessions where you and your team can follow a structured exercise routine via the power of remote working tools. You can also consider paying for a mental health care professional to support your team during what could only be stressful times for your team members.

Don’t use building your business as an excuse to push your team beyond its breaking point. Always remember that pressing your team members to the point of exhaustion can actually be counterproductive. It’s much wiser for you to find ways to help your team members be the best versions of their professional selves by balancing their investments of hard work with enough downtime to de-stress and recharge their batteries.

By Ron Johnson

Author | Speaker | Storyteller (Co-founder, Blueprint Creative)
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