55 Hours and Death by Karoshi

May 08 2023
By: Shawn M. Galloway

A close friend is putting in a pool and outdoor kitchen at his newly built home. The contractor, a mid-40s guy in physically great shape working hard in and on his business, died of a heart attack last weekend.

Many companies and societies value hard work, burning the candle at both ends, getting in earlier, and leaving later than the boss. At sixteen, my father advised, "Shawn, no one will ever owe you a job; you must show and demonstrate new value every day." I have an incredibly strong work ethic because of intrinsic, not extrinsic, motivation. Because of staffing shortages or operational issues, some employees are forced to work overtime, extrinsic. Man lying down in a hallway surrounded by papers Others actively pursue overtime for extra income, intrinsic. Whatever motivates it, how many hours a week is too many?

According to an analysis of the loss of life and health associated with working long hours conducted by the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization, the answer is fifty-five. "The study concludes that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week."1

In the 1970s, Japan began recognizing this correlation of overwork death and named it Karoshi.2 It seems my friend's contractor died of Karoshi. When we look at risks in an occupational setting, they are not just physical or behavioral. Pursuing excellence requires us to also consider the complete person. Their health, diet, psychological and work balance matter as well.

How many of your employees are at risk of Karoshi? Consider adding these leading indicators to your safety or risk scorecard, the average amount of overtime and the number of employees working more than 50 hours a week. You identified a workplace risk if this is a substantial number of individuals. Now, what are you going to do about it?

"Real wealth is discretionary time. Money is simply fuel for your life. You can always make another dollar, but you can't make another minute. Don't let the pursuit of money erode your wealth." — Alan Weiss

"Whether it's the best of times or the worst of times, it's the only time we've got." — Art Buchwald

"Fatigue makes fools of us all. It robs you of your skills and your judgment, and it blinds you to creative solutions. It's the best-conditioned athlete, not the most talented, who generally wins when the going gets tough." — Harvey Mackay

Source 1: World Health Organization (2021, May 17). Long working hours increasing deaths from heart disease and stroke: WHO, ILO.

Source 2: Karoshi. In Wikipedia.

Shawn M. Galloway

Shawn M. Galloway is CEO of the global consultancy ProAct Safety. He is a trusted advisor, professional keynote speaker, and author of several bestselling books on safety strategy, culture, leadership, and behavior-based safety. He is a monthly columnist for several magazines and one of the most prolific contributors in the industry, having also authored over 700 podcasts, 200 articles, and 100 videos. Shawn has received awards and recognition for his significant contributions from the American Society of Safety Professionals, National Safety Council's Top 40 Rising Stars and Top Ten Speakers, EHS Today Magazine's 50 People Who Most Influenced EHS, ISHN Magazine's POWER 101 - Leaders of the EHS World and their newest list: 50 Leaders for Today and Tomorrow, Pro-Sapien's list of The Top 11 Health and Safety Influencers and is an Avetta Distinguished Fellow.

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