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Karoshi – Are You Working Yourself to Death?

We need to strike a fine balance between various aspects of your lives. In order to live a good, well rounded life, there needs to be a bit of all – work, social life, personal life, family, leisure, learning

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Karoshi, the Japanese term for ‘Death by Overwork’ involves committing suicide or getting a heart attack or stroke due to extremely long working hours.

While the fact that a culture has a term for such a phenomenon makes one wonder what is really going on in the minds of the population, it is also something that we, with our ‘Indian mindset’, can relate with. While each of us is in the know of what happens if we work for very long hours, let’s break it down and face the brass tacks.

Physical Health Problems: There has been much talk about how our bodies are getting affected by sitting for long hours at work. Some of the common health concerns that are fast turning into an epidemic of sorts are – Cardiovascular disorders (eg. High blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmia, cardiac arrest), Musculoskeletal disorders (eg. Tendonitis, Carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis, Tension neck syndrome), ulcers, cancers, and impaired immune function.

Psychological / Emotional Problems: Work stress and unreasonable hours often lead to a mental / emotional imbalance leading to disorders like Depression, Anxiety Disorders, Panic Attacks, etc. We can expect to experience a range of emotional problems such as:

Irritability
Anger
Hostility
Frustration
Reduced interest in the usual activities that one used to enjoy
Aggression towards others
Feelings of helplessness, guilt, and worthlessness
Suicidal ideas
Insomnia
Appetite disturbances
Poor attention and concentration
Impaired decision making
Not taking interest on one’s appearance
Disregard for rules and punctuality
Tendency to lie or make excuses
Reduced interest and efficiency at work
Impulsivity
Increased Alcohol, betting, or gambling
Isolating oneself, reduced interaction with friends
Poor communication

Relationship Problems: Needless to say, if you are not present, the relationship won’t last. A very obvious fall out of working over time is a broken relationship. This applies to friendships, love life, family, and any other relationship one can think of. This also includes your relationship with your gym, with your dance class, with your travel and any other thing that requires you to be present.

So, what can we do to ensure that we don’t go the Karoshi way? Here are some things that we can think of:

Review your work ethic: Loyalty and dedication are not equivalent to long work hours. In fact, you are clearly being inefficient if you can’t complete your work within a certain time limit. Also, if you want to impress your boss, do that through your work and not by being seen at your desk. This is something that the management needs to change about their mindset. Only then will it percolate down to the employees.

Get some sleep: Lack of sleep can not only ruin your efficiency at work, but also wreck havoc with your emotional side. Make sure you give yourself a few hours of sleep each night. Our sleep quota may differ from others, but whatever it is that our body needs, we must give that on a regular basis. Lack of sleep may not kill you directly, but will certainly aggravate underlying pathology of any sort and may make you more prone to developing certain ailments.

De-Stress: Get into your mind and figure out what thoughts and feelings that are stressing you out. It is not the external situation but your reaction to it that is stressful. Make a list of all the situations that trigger off your stress. Now write down the corresponding thoughts and feelings with each of them. This will give you an idea of which pattern is not working for you. Now, consciously choose to think and do something different in that situation. Finally, Practice! Practice! Practice! It is totally possible to turn our stress around and make it an easy situation for us.

Define your Ikigai: Let’s draw inspiration from yet another Japanese concept – the secret to living a long, happy life. You need to have things in your life for which you feel like waking up in the morning, things that give your life some meaning, that give you a sense of purpose. You know you have found your ikigai when working for it doesn’t seem like work. This is what brings about a deep sense of satisfaction in your life and makes it all seems worthwhile. Happiness is just a natural outcome. So, in practical terms, you need to reflect upon what is it that really matters to you. You might find yourself confused between various options that mind throws at you. A trick to beat that is – ACT. Unless you DO it, you’ll never know if that was your calling – your ikigai.

Balance it out: Finally, you need to strike a fine balance between various aspects of your lives. In order to live a good, well rounded life, there needs to be a bit of all – work, social life, personal life, family, leisure, learning. Draw out a pie chart of your life and the time you spend on each activity. Now see how you would ideally like it to be. Start working on the gap. Routine is one of the best markers for us if we are on track or slipping.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Dr Sanjay Chugh

The author is a Senior Consultant Psychiatrist

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