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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 March 2019

Working too much? You could be hooked on the feeling

Work becomes a kind of psychological painkiller and just as we can have physical addictions, we can also get hooked on employment-related activity

Indian workers doing overtime at Diwali to meet sales targets. Subhash Sharma for The National
Indian workers doing overtime at Diwali to meet sales targets. Subhash Sharma for The National

Miwa Sado was a journalist working a gruelling regime at NHK, Japan's national public broadcasting organisation. In the month before her death in 2013, she had logged 159 hours of overtime and taken only two days off.

Ms Sado was 31 when she died from heart failure. The Japanese have a word for it: karoshi, meaning death by overwork. In 2016, the Japanese government published a white paper suggesting that as many as one in five Japanese workers were at risk of death from overwork.

Japan, although an extreme case, is not alone in witnessing potentially problematic levels of work overload. A recent survey reported that UAE employees worked an average of 24 hours of overtime per month, a higher rate than any of the other nine nations included in the study. Interestingly, this study was undertaken by an insurance company, Maxis Global Benefits Network, who have an obvious interest in helping their clients reduce rates of premature death and healthcare service uptake.

For some expatriates in the UAE, far from family and childhood friends, work might be a way of filling the social void and keeping feelings of loneliness at bay

Data from the Japanese white paper on this issue suggests that working 80 hours of overtime per month is the threshold where the prospect of death from overwork becomes a serious risk. But the bar can be much lower for an increased risk of ill health. The research suggests a linear relationship between overwork, illness and premature death. This is particularly true of heart-related diseases. As a rule of thumb, those who work the longest hours are generally at greater risk of heart attack and this risk is further heightened if the person isn’t getting sufficient sleep. If we are working 16 hours a day, we are unlikely to be getting the seven to nine hours of sleep recommended by the National Sleep Foundation.

There are many reasons why we might work long hours or opt to do overtime. Some of us might be fortunate enough to absolutely love what we do, deriving great pleasure or purpose from our work activities. In such cases, long working hours are only a problem when they interfere with other responsibilities – for example, taking care of our physical needs or spending time with loved ones.

Unfortunately, not all of us love what we do or where we do it. Some of us can wind up working on unfulfilling tasks within uncaring organisations. In these toxic environments, overtime might be framed as “optional” but the employee being asked might feel anxious about saying no. Similarly, some organisations develop cultures where excessive overtime and appearing perpetually busy are the key to career progression. Long hours become a prerequisite for promotion, irrespective of actual productivity levels. In other cases, excessive extra hours can be driven by the need or desire for extra cash, achievement or social approval.

It is also fair to say that some of us self-medicate on overtime. Work can be a way of drowning out the noise of unpleasant thoughts: if we’re working, we’re not worrying or overthinking. For some expatriates in the UAE, far from family and childhood friends, work might be a way of filling the social void and keeping feelings of loneliness at bay.

Work becomes a kind of psychological painkiller and just as we can have physical addictions, we can also get hooked on employment-related activity. This type of escapism, known as experiential avoidance, is familiar to many psychological issues – for example, depression, anxiety and disorders related to substance abuse.

One antidote to experiential avoidance is to allow unpleasant and unwanted feelings to arise and then, rather than trying to chase them away, practice just being with them. This is a central idea in mindfulness-based approaches, which are increasingly being used to help employees manage stress more creatively and effectively.

In June last year, Japan passed the Work Style Reform Law to address some of the issues related to overworking. This new law will come into effect for large employers from April and for small to medium-sized employers from April 2020. The new law will limit overtime work to 45 hours per month, with a maximum of 360 hours of overtime in a year.

While legislation is helpful to some extent, ultimately we are our own best defence. If we notice that we are using overworking as a way of avoiding deeper issues or as a means of coping with stress, then it’s time to make time to re-examine and perhaps recalibrate our work-life balance.

Dr Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University

Updated: February 24, 2019 07:40 PM

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