Work-Life Balance: Tipping the Mortality Scale

Last time in this space, we discussed how physical or emotional stress affects the human heart. This time, we will focus on why maintaining a favorable balance between a commitment to our jobs and the need to prioritize our lives outside of the workplace is both a life-affirming and possible life-saving necessity.

Let’s start by looking back to the early 1990’s, when researchers in Japan started to study and report on a phenomenon where it appeared ostensibly healthy, middle-aged, mostly men, started to die suddenly. The term coined for the cause of death in this group was “karoshi”, meaning death from overwork. The common thread running through these cases was a history of chronically long work weeks, logging in at 60 hours and often more. The cause of death was disturbing in its’ repetition, most often heart disease, stroke or suicide (1).

More recently, and perhaps due to the pandemic and a growing body of knowledge increasingly difficult to ignore, there is renewed interest in the burden and toll of an unhealthy work life.

A joint venture by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) published in 2021 estimated that nearly 400,000 people died from stroke and almost 350,000 from heart disease as a direct result of chronic work weeks of 55 hours or more. Between 2000 and 2016, this increased by 42% for heart disease and 19% for stroke (2). In these groups, 72% were males and more concentrated in workers aged 60 or higher. Related studies demonstrate mental disorder consequences affected younger groups, many in the third decade of life (3).

What can be done to stem the tide of this disturbing trend? In Japan, legislation has been passed to limit the amount of monthly permitted overtime. Critics claim the threshold for allowable overtime hours still is too high and enforcement is inconsistent. In Canada, more employers are increasingly sensitive to the work-life balance necessary to maintain a healthy workforce. There is a school of thought that we are a physically tired society with an underlying belief that professional success requires us to walk the edge of burnout. There is more emphasis on sleep as a bedrock of good health, and good sleep advocacy continues to gain ground in addition to good nutrition, exercise and positive social integration (4).

It is clear that hard work is made more satisfying by knowing when to call it a day.

  1. Hunt, Ellen. Wired. Japan’s karoshi culture was a warning: we didn’t listen. February 6, 2021.
  2. World Health Organization. Long working hours increasing deaths from heart disease and stroke: WHO, ILO. May 17, 2021.
  3. Takahashi, Mayasa. Sociomedical problems of overwork-related deaths and disorders in Japan. National Library of Medicine. January 22, 2019.
  4. Tollin, Lisa. Arianna Huffington shares the secret to her success: Sleep. her secret to success. the Secrets of Her Success: Sleep. June 5, 2017.

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Work-Life Balance: Tipping the Mortality Scale