Work - don’t let it kill you

27th of December 2016
Work - don’t let it kill you

“Hard work won’t kill you,” the saying goes. Well, it might actually. Working long hours can be very bad for your health and trigger a stroke or bring on a heart attack. So why do we do it, asks Hartley Milner.

In Japan, they have a word for it – karoshi, which translates as ‘death by overwork’. And every year, thousands, of Japanese people do indeed literally work themselves to death.

Once a death is classified as karoshi, a victim’s family is automatically entitled to compensation through a type of workers’ benefits system. The number of claims for karoshi-related cases rose to a record high of 2,310 in the year to March, government figures show.

Hard graft and insanely long hours have become ingrained into Japanese culture – and much the same is happening in the West, with 60-70 hour weeks not uncommon. The following is a cautionary tale of the health risks from burning the candle at both ends.

Jill Harrington was marketing director for one of the UK’s biggest bus operators. Directing a staff of 30 on a myriad of major projects while ensuring her two young daughters were not left wanting for a mother’s love and attention, she was the Jessica Ennis-Hill of multiskilling in the daily grind, and everyone close to her said she deserved a medal.

The ultimate price

But there are no podium places for outstanding performance coping with everyday life and the stresses of working longer hours to keep on top of an ever-expanding workload brought her perilously close to paying the ultimate price.

“It was all so easy and such fun when I first started out 13 years ago,” Jill said. “I had just left university with a master’s degree in strategic marketing and almost immediately landed an internship at the bus company. Then after six months I was taken on full-time and put on their graduate management training programme.

I couldn’t believe my luck – here I was, working for a forward-looking public service provider in an exciting and challenging role I just knew I was right for and drawing a good starting salary while being groomed for a senior leadership role. Also, I had just accepted a proposal or marriage, so life couldn’t have been sweeter.”

Ambitious and eager to impress, Jill threw herself into her management studies while fully supporting the marketing team in the promotion of the company’s services, and it was not long before her natural organising skills, original thinking and creativity were recognised. Within a year, she was promoted to project leader and 18 months later, still only 25, she was made marketing manager at one of the group’s regional operating companies.

“It was at this stage in my career that my workload got heavier and the hours I was working increased exponentially, but I was not fazed,” Jill said. “I was relishing the opportunity to come up with creative solutions to new challenges and getting huge satisfaction from seeing how the results of my endeavours were benefiting the company and the travelling public. I simply loved my job.

Missed the job

“By that time, though, I was married and thinking about starting a family. I was confident I could find the right balance between managing a busy career and family life. After having my first child, I took maternity leave and really enjoyed motherhood, but I desperately missed my job and within a few months I was back at my desk. All was going well. I felt I had the best of both worlds.

“And when in my early 30s I was promoted to group marketing director, I was so thrilled – I told myself ‘you’ve where you belong, you’ve arrived’. Here was my chance to use my skills, creativity and insight to the full in a more strategic role, to devise and implement new marketing campaigns to further my employer’s brand, image and standing in the marketplace.

“The next few years were a crazy round of internal strategy meetings, briefings with creative agencies, engaging with stakeholders in the communities we serve and reviewing the effectiveness of print and digital communications, while all the time travelling round the regions ensuring my 30-strong marketing team remained on-message. There were just not enough hours in the working day, so I found myself needing to take stuff home with me to work on in the evenings and at weekends. But I was in my element and just saw the long hours as part of the job.”

Jill’s second child arrived following a difficult pregnancy. As she spent time at home caring for her newborn and spending more time with her first child, she was conscious of not feeling quite the same yearning to return to work this time round.

More and more work

She said: “I did eventually go back, partly because my husband’s business was in trouble and we needed my salary. All seemed to go well for the next year or so. I seemed to have re-found my enthusiasm, but then the recession began to bite and the new group ceo brought the knives out and began slashing everything back, including my department.

“I suddenly found myself loaded with more work and taking on extra responsibilities that were only loosely attached to marketing, if at all. I was working considerably longer hours than before – 14-hour days had almost become the norm. I was snacking on unhealthy foods, grabbing just a few hours of disturbed sleep and neglecting my family and myself. I felt trapped.”

As well as sleep-deprivation, Jill started to show many of the other signs of physical and emotional exhaustion – chronic fatigue, forgetfulness/impaired concentration, weakened resistance to colds and flu, loss of appetite, thumping headaches and increased anxiety.

She continued: “By nature, I’m an extremely hopeful, positive person, not generally given to stress. I now felt myself sinking into depression and my temper was on a very short fuse. I was sniping at everyone around me over the slightest thing, including my husband Tony and the children, and then feeling so guilty about it. At times, I even felt like physically lashing out. My family was extremely concerned.”

Rushed to hospital

Things came to a head one Sunday when Jill complained of chronic indigestion, heart palpitations and stabbing chest pains. “Tony took control and whisked me off to hospital where the medics said I may have had a minor heart attack or my body was warning me it was in severe distress,” Jill said.

“They gave me medication for the heart palpitations and to calm me down and told me to consult my GP, which I did the next day. She confirmed the hospital diagnosis and prescribed more calming medication and lots and lots of rest.

“But how could I rest? I had a dozen or so major projects on the go at work. One, the replacement of diesel buses with a fleet of green hybrid vehicles, was well advanced. I had to see it through to completion. I couldn’t let my company or my colleagues down. At the same time, I felt, well, I was good for nothing. My thoughts were racing in all directions. My head was a complete mess.

“Again, Tony took a grip on things and called my company to explain the situation. But he went a step further without my knowledge, not only telling them that I wouldn’t be back at work anytime soon but that I would not be returning at all. When he told me this, I flew into a rage. How dare he sabotage my career? And how are we going to get by without my salary?

“Tony took my hand and said calmly ‘We would rather have you here with us alive than bring flowers to your grave every Sunday’. I just broke down and wept and wept. But looking back, this spontaneous release of emotions was the first step in coming to terms with my situation.”

A few days later, Jill received a call from a fellow director at her company expressing the board’s sadness at her departure – but also surprise as they detected no change in her demeanour. Her sympathetic team members thought she simply needed to take a short break.

Seek help

“At first, I was amazed no one had picked up on what was happening to me,” Jill said. “Then I realised that for most of the time I had put on a mask to hide all the emotions that were bubbling up inside me. I felt I had brought much of this on myself by not seeking help when I needed it, regarding such a step as an admission of failure. Stress support was available, if only I had sought it.

“I am now back at work, still employed in marketing but for a national children‘s charity. The job is challenging but satisfying and, best of all, I have lots of time to spend with my family. Money is a bit tight, but we’re getting by.

“I suppose the lesson here is if you feel chained to the treadmill, cry for help before you drop. Life is too precious to throw away.”


Our Partners

  • ISSA Interclean
  • EFCI
  • EU-nited