Karoshi!? Who me?!

So is it bad that three different people sent this story to my inbox today?!

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On and on and on the job
Long workweeks, short vacations putting Americans in a health squeeze

Mariko Thompson
Los Angeles Daily News
Sept. 16, 2003 12:00 AM

The Japanese have a term for being worked to death – karoshi. Americans might not know the term but ought to be familiar with the concept. Surveys have found Americans are working long hours and taking little leisure time, a stressful state of affairs that could have profound effects on health and well-being.

Over the past decade, U.S. workers have surpassed the Japanese in hours worked – about two weeks more per year, labor statistics show. An annual survey by the National Sleep Foundation found that 38 percent of American adults work 50 hours or more a week. Among U.S. workers receiving paid vacation, one in six is unable to use all the allotted time, the Oxford Health Plans national survey found.

“Work-life balance is something we’re really struggling with in this country,” said David Logan, associate dean of the USC Marshall School of Business. “We don’t have the issue under control by any means.”

Unlike other industrialized nations, the United States doesn’t mandate a minimum amount of vacation time. Most U.S. companies provide two weeks to full-time employees after one year of service. Countries in the European Union require at least four weeks of paid vacation.

Economists are split on the impact of vacation time on business, Logan said. Some see increasing vacation time as driving up the cost of labor. But there’s also evidence that rested employees are a boost to productivity. Studies have shown that people are better able to handle stress after taking a vacation. Depending on the length of the vacation and how relaxing it was, that rebound effect can last up to 90 days, Logan said.

Work or don’t work
Although Americans value hard work, that Puritan ethic is not the only factor keeping employees tethered to their desks, experts say. Surveys suggest downsizing has made many Americans anxious about job security. People also worry work will pile up while they’re gone. The Oxford Health Plan found that nearly a third of employees work through lunch and never leave the building once they arrive for work. Nineteen percent said they felt obligated to work even when sick or injured.

Diane Boyd, a small-business owner who puts in at least 12 hours a day, knows how hard it is to schedule a vacation. Boyd, owner of Curves for Women in Encino, Calif., just launched a second fitness center franchise in Tarzana. After two years of working non-stop, Boyd took two weeks off in June to travel to France.

“Owners do everything,” Boyd said. “If someone can’t come to work, we fill in. But the rewards merit the work.”

A certain amount of job stress is unavoidable. Researchers say job satisfaction and feelings of control determine whether stress has adverse effects on health.

In studies on job stress and health, workers experiencing heavy workloads with little decisionmaking power were at greatest risk for high blood pressure and heart disease, said Paul Landsbergis, an assistant professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and a research associate at the Center for Social Epidemiology in Santa Monica. Workers who feel job strain – high demands and little control – have double the risk of dying from heart disease, he said.

“Executives tend to get less heart disease than people lower on the economic ladder,” Landsbergis said.

A recent study by Ohio State University researchers suggests how chronic stress undermines the immune system. The husband-wife team of Ronald Glaser, professor of viral immunology, and Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry, looked at people who cared for a spouse suffering from dementia. The caregivers, faced with the unpredictable demands of dementia, had unusually high levels of a protein called interleukin-6.

IL-6 triggers inflammation that helps the immune system fight infection. But producing too much IL-6 can lead to heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis and type 2 diabetes. Though age naturally raises levels of IL-6, so does stress. The caregivers in the Ohio State study had four times more IL-6 than the control group.

“Potentially, the chronic stress is aging the immune system,” Kiecolt-Glaser said.

You are what you do
Marc Graff, a Reseda-based psychiatrist for Kaiser Permanente, said the American work-based culture also has psychological implications. The emphasis on work has created a situation in which people build their identities around their jobs. With little leisure time for family, friends or getting involved in their community, people have become increasingly isolated, he said.

“These days, people belong to nothing,” he said. “Work is the one thing they do.”

Is there any way to break the all-work, no-play cycle? John de Graaf, national coordinator of the Take Back Your Time Day campaign, plans to give it a try. The campaign, backed by the Simplicity Forum, selected Oct. 24, nine weeks before the end of the year, as the date to represent the 350 hours more per year that Americans work compared with workers in Western Europe, de Graaf said.

De Graaf hopes Take Back Your Time Day will create awareness of the work issue just as Earth Day brought attention to the environment.

“We do have the highest standard of material living among industrialized countries,” de Graaf said. “If that’s the measure of life, we’re doing OK. What we’re sacrificing are other values that are important to a good and balanced life.”

Joe Robinson, Santa Monica-based author of Work to Live and the founder of the Work-to-Live campaign, is pushing for a national paid-leave law that would provide all employees with three weeks of vacation.

“I tend to think overwork is the Number 1 family values issue,” Robinson said. “We work 100 hours a year more than the Japanese. I’d hate to see what our karoshi numbers look like.”

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