Sick systems are literally killing us

Good Simple Open is outIt’s Bad Jobs Week here at I’m discussing aspects of bad jobs each day in honor of my new book which is about making work better: Today: Sick Systems.

Back in May, I wrote a long piece about the sick system I’d recently left. I called the article “Why do we stay in jobs that are bad for us?” I wondered often and intensely about why I’d stayed in that punishing job for so long. The article “went viral” and has been viewed around 20,000 times. Before I changed domains in July, it had 1700 Likes on Facebook. It clearly struck a nerve.

Unfortunately, the reason it struck such a nerve is that too many of us are stuck in jobs we can’t quit. We could be literally addicted to the chaos or our time is so compromised by our current job that we can’t look for a new one. On Monday, I talked a little about that chaos and the myth managers believe that more hours means more production. Today, I’m looking a little more at sick systems — the ways in which jobs entrap us.

It’s a great week to explore this since it was just revealed that Apple and Facebook are paying women to freeze their eggs so they don’t miss a minute of work. This is an example of a sick system masquerading as something benevolent. Emma Barnett writing in the Telegraph put it well:

If you make an office so comfortable that you never want to leave, guess what? You rarely do – especially if you can sleep there.

These businesses may provide beautiful environments and enviable perks for their staff – but they have also massively blurred the lines between life and work for them too.

While on its face it may seem like a cool idea (and it does certainly provide some field-leveling for careerist women), it’s really another way to tie employees to a job, to blur that work/life balance. It ultimately benefits the business more than the individual.

Work/life balance is essential to your health. Instead of coming up with schemes to help individuals to work more, we should be innovating ways to work less. Get people disconnected from the job after hours, make sure work hours are reasonable, recognize there is a maximum amount of production they can do, focus on their health. Here’s why:

White-collar workers in China are just straight-up dying from overwork. Apparently in both Japan and China, there are terms for death from overwork (karoshi and guolaosi). When I published my original article about sick systems, I received an email from a Briton who has been living and working in Japan for the past ten years. She enlightened me to the unhealthy system there:

What bothers me is that there is a culture of bullying here and people do not face that aspect of the working culture because of the need to save face. There is also an unspoken idea that workers will work late and so the average work/life balance is terrible for a large number of people. Many of my friends work until 11pm/ 12am on a regular basis.

There are also two contributing concepts “Ganbaru” which is like saying “I will keep trying harder or try my best” and “shoganai” which literally translated means “it can`t be helped” i.e there is nothing I can do about it.

When I worked in my first job and was told by the doctor I might have appendicitis and should not move around and I explained this to my manager he told me my Japanese colleagues had called me lazy in the past and this was an example of that?! needless to say I left that job.

Japan also has one of the world’s highest suicide rates and many of the people who jump in front of trains in Tokyo are disillusioned salarymen who see no way out. I find this heartbreaking when the principles of harmony, discipline and attention to detail within the culture here are inherently positive ones.

I hope we’re not at those levels in the United States but it’s true we have a problem with workaholism. While this New Republic article compiles a bunch of great statistics on all aspects of our new hours, here is one group of stats that you may not have considered:

This overwork shows up in our sleep. Out of five developed peers, four other countries sleep more than us. That has again worsened over the years. In 1942, more than 80 percent of Americans slept seven hours a night or more. Today, 40 percent sleep six hours or less. A lack of sleep makes us poorer workers: People who sleep less than seven hours a night have a much harder time concentrating and getting work done.

The article makes the same point many of us have been trying to drill into the brains of our employers: working longer hours doesn’t lead to more productivity.

Perhaps it would be worth all of this if working longer and harder produced better results, fueled the economy, and created wealth for everyone. But that’s not likely. Taking some time off actually improves a worker’s productivity at work. A study from Ernst & Young found that every ten hours of vacation time taken by an employee boosted her year-end performance rating by 8 percent and lowered turnover.

These ideas on the relationship between health, hours worked, and productivity are not radical, subversive ideas. They are mainsteam. They are simply ignored by “dangerously incompetent management.” Forbes magazine wrote about why working more than 8 hours a day can kill you. Business Insider elucidated why working 6 days a week is bad for you.

But hey there’s hope, right? Bloomberg reported that young bankers are fed up with 90 hour weeks and leaving the profession. Of course, that happy news is sobering in light of the recent suicides of bankers.

In the New York Times, this article on why we hate our jobs stated what you might think is obvious:

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

But then explains we don’t get those needs met at work:

Employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30 percent higher level of focus than those who take no breaks or just one during the day. They also report a nearly 50 percent greater capacity to think creatively and a 46 percent higher level of health and well-being. The more hours people work beyond 40 — and the more continuously they work — the worse they feel, and the less engaged they become.

As Jeff Archibald wrote on his blog:

We need to stop being proud of overworking ourselves. It’s unhealthy, it stunts the growth of the business, and it’s unsustainable. Instead, we should be proud of creating or working in an environment that is efficient, organized, and diligent enough to allow people to work regular hours on meaningful work.

This is the same idea I’ve harped on for years to bosses who never say “no” to their superiors. When we’re working long hours, we’re fucking up somewhere. Something is wrong with the job, not us. Let’s figure it out before it kills us.

If all of this is interesting to you, I hope you’ll check out my new book which you can preview online or order from Amazon and start reading immediately.