Could the UK fall victim to Japan's 'Karoshi' over-working culture?

Burnout and work-related stress is on the up - no wonder our productivity is so low.

by Jonathan Richards
Last Updated: 09 Jan 2017

Burnout is on the rise. Work-related stress is reaching epidemic levels. We are working longer hours, and the kicker? As a nation, our productivity is at the lowest level since records began. 

We have a serious work/life problem in the UK, and one which could have devastating effects to the long-term health and wellbeing of our employees.

We’re not alone. This toxic combination of overworking and low productivity is also present – and more extreme - in Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun’s unique working culture means that a typical employee works 60 hours a week and even 80 – 100 hour weeks are common.

Japan’s problem of overworking is so acute that, in the last four years, suicides directly related to overworking have increased by 45 percent, while working yourself to death even has its own name – karoshi. Could we be laying the foundations for karoshi to prosper, here in the UK?

Bad habits are endemic

To get a handle on the scale of the problem here, two-thirds of us are now working more hours than we did two years ago, while only 10% believe they are more productive as a result. So where’s the disconnect?

The problem is that we have a tendency to glorify working long-hours, gleefully broadcasting our martyrdom across social media or at the water cooler, on the occasions we find ourselves burning the midnight oil or working weekends. The sad truth is that in many businesses, working late has become a badge of honour which separates the ‘dedicated’ and ‘passionate’ late workers, from the ‘disinterested’ and ‘uncommitted’ clock watchers.

We now have a cultural problem where many business owners and managers actually view working longer hours as a mandatory path that must be trodden to demonstrate loyalty, dedication and passion, en route to a promotion.

These bad practices have left many workers struggling with wellbeing, with one in four stating that work makes them unhappy. Working longer hours doesn’t always equate to increased productivity and by fostering a culture where excessive overtime is linked to career progression, we are recklessly ignoring workplace wellbeing, whilst being both small-minded and counter-productive. So why are so many businesses still gambling with the health of their employees?

Not just an HR problem

The damaging impact of overworking reaches far beyond employee health and wellbeing. A culture of overworking can also a filter down and cripple a nation’s economic performance, which is why its no surprise that the rise of karoshi has coincided with Japan’s economic growth, productivity and ability to innovate all grinding to a halt.

Japan’s post-war economic growth was built on high-tech innovation, yet today its more often than not associated with corporate decline, sluggish growth and general stagnation. While there are many factors which have contributed to this, Japan’s corporate culture is clearly in need of a reboot.
UK productivity is also at rock bottom. We are working longer hours and over servicing is a growing problem. The stress and wellbeing of our biggest asset, our people, is being seriously compromised, but like Japan, could we also be putting our ability to innovate on the line?

As employers we have a choice

As business owners and managers we have the power to decide how we run our companies and how we treat our employees. Company cultures and business norms can be rewritten. We make the conscious decision whether or not we should sacrifice the health and wellbeing of employees in an attempt to boost productivity and profit.

I’ve worked in macho environments where working longer hours takes on a competitive edge and it’s not healthy. It’s for that reason that when I started my own business, breatheHR, I made the conscious decision to ensure as a bare minimum, I would allow my employees to leave on time each day.

While there will obviously be exceptions to the rule, generally speaking, if an employee has to work late are they really working effectively during their normal working hours? If you encourage them to leave on time you inspire them to be more disciplined at work and motivate them to be more productive throughout the day so that they can leave at the same time as everyone else.

Therefore, it’s important to let your employees know that you expect a lot from them because you want to challenge them and allow them to contribute to the success of the business. But you also need to emphasise the need for balance and the importance of living a healthy lifestyle.

On a positive note, issues relating to employee wellbeing are finally rising up the boardroom agenda. But there is much work still to be done – both in terms of recognising when specific employees are struggling, and also knowing how to help them.

As a nation we need to wake up to the damage that our ‘work late’ culture is inflicting because it definitely isn’t healthy and it doesn’t improve productivity. This could also be the thin end of the wedge, with our ability to produce and innovate under serious threat.

As employers it’s down to us to adopt more progressive people management strategies that will ensure karoshi never makes its way to these shores.

Investing more in the health and wellbeing of our staff is therefore vital, but for a quick fix, why not make sure your employees leave on time today?

Jonathan Richards is the CEO of breatheHR

Image source: Hiroo Yagamata/Flickr


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