The Rise of Killer Jobs

According to a 2021 World Health Organisation research study, overwork kills more than 745,000 people a year through strokes and heart attacks. The number of deaths due to long work hours from heart disease increased by 42% and from stroke by 19% between 2000 and 2016. The modern world of work is literally killing us. 

Published in the journal Environment International, researchers reviewed data of individuals working 55 hours or more – what we call long hours working, and the impact of long hours working on health and mortality rates.

The study established one simple fact: overwork is the single largest risk factor for occupational disease, accounting for roughly one-third of the burden of diseases related to work. Overwork impacts our health in two key ways; firstly it has a negative impact on our biology, caused by chronic stress. The second is due to behavioural change – limited sleep, little exercise, poor diet, and an increase in smoking and drinking, as a response to chronic stress and exhaustion. 

The cult of the modern workplace is a killer. 

The three killer cults

1. The cult of long hours

Miwa Sado, a young journalist who worked for Japan’s state-run broadcaster, spent the summer of 2013 covering two location elections in Tokyo. In the period of 4 weeks, in the run-up to the elections, Miwa had worked 159 hours in overtime, working excessive hours, often 7 days per week. Within days of the second election, at the age of 31, she was dead. Her body was maxed out. 

Miwa is one of many; there is also the case of Moritz Erhardt, the city intern who died as a result of overwork. The list is long. 

While attitudes may be changing, the culture of long working hours in many countries is the default. I’ve seen it in my career. I see many friends and acquaintances across the globe viewing long hours as a badge of honour. Doing an all-nighter in some sectors – in particular legal, consulting, financial – can reach hero status. Long working hours extends beyond the traditional Monday to Friday, spilling over into the weekend. This is fuelled by the cult of busyness. Knowledge workers are often more vulnerable to this cult of busyness than other groups. In his work on Slow Productivity, Cal Newport talks of ‘pseudo-productivity’. This is the opposite of ‘deep work’, and leads to highly unproductive and unhealthy workplaces.

In the absence of an obvious metric, Newport argues, bosses began “using visible activity as a crude proxy for actual productivity”, ultimately encouraging employees to prioritise this performative busywork. This got even worse, the author notes, when computers became a fixture of office life: they led, he says, “to more and more of the average [worker’s] day being dedicated to talking about work, as fast and frantically as possible, through incessant electronic messaging”.

Newport eloquently describes the art of performative busyness. Looking busy as status symbol is the new gold standard in many global work environments. As stressed by Lindsay Kohler, the lead behavioural scientist at employee engagement consultancy scarlettabbott, projecting busyness signals – in a climate of redundancies and layouts – leave me alone, I’m busy; I’m important and critical to business success. It’s the psychology of self-protectionism and status management all rolled into one. Burnout is the result.

2. The cult of technology

The modern workplace is driven by technological advances that drive human connectivity and speed of information flow. However, there is a dark slide to technology. Firstly, it drives the ‘always on culture’. The ideas that immediate connectivity means instant availability. I had coffee with a client of mine – the partner of a global law firm. I sat for 15 minutes as she described how she’d reach for her mobile phone literally, the moment she woke up. She’d be checking e-mails at 5.30am as she went to the bathroom. Her ‘work days’ were structured through a pattern of meetings and email checking until midnight, and then over the weekend and when on family vacations. No down-time. The phone was becoming a drug device – it became a means for her latest dopamine hit. She was drugged up on technological unhappiness. 

According to Marylène Gagné, a professor at the Future of Work Institute at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, technology has worsened the satisfaction of our psychological needs when we work. Her research has stressed that the increase in technology has led to a decrease in human capital skills, simply because technology has overtaken our skills requirements. This impacts key performance factors such as motivation, engagement and positive team relationships. 

Technology has eliminated the boundaries of work-life balance. In the US 47% of office workers believe that modern technology has increased their working hours, and at least one in three employees feel they are expected to be reachable after office hours. This always on culture via technology is stressing us all out. Gloria Mark from the University of California at Irving has shown that workers who take a break from the drug of mobile phone usage and email checking are less stressed, more productive and can focus longer on a single task.

Harvard Business School researchers Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter asked a team of consultants from BCG to unplug from technology just once a week. The results, they became more productive and reported more open communication between colleagues. 

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For me a critical issue with technology is the endless pinging of multiple devises simultaneously – Text, Phone, WhatsApp, Teams, Slack – the platforms designed to increase productivity and connectivity are, in reality, leading to dis-connected, unhappy and unhealthy humans. 

3. The cult of Othering

Being different has profound negative psychological consequences. As someone who has worked in inclusion management for over 20 years, I cannot stress enough the impact of being and feeling different is without question one of the most challenging issues of modern life. Many research studies have highlighted the importance of social connectedness as a trigger for positive health and wellbeing. Our relationships with co-workers, when friendly, stable, and positive impacts areas such as stress, anxiety, and depression. 

Research across five counties (United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil, Canada, and the United States) by the London School of Economics found that: 

  • Many individuals from ethnic groups are constantly ‘on guard’ due to experiences of micro-aggressions, bias and overt discrimination. 
  • Being on high alert adds an ‘emotional tax’ that negatively affects health, wellbeing, and the ability to thrive at work.
  • There was little difference between men and women, but marginalised racial and ethnic groups who are LGBTQ+ (74%) and transgender and nonbinary employees (85%) show significantly higher rates of being on guard against bias.

In my work with many global businesses, I have found that many marginalised groups often (almost daily) experience a profound lack of psychological safety resulting in the need to Cover at work. They often experience isolation or paradoxically Othering through extreme forms of tokenism – let’s roll out the black person for our Black History Month talk or the gay person to speak on all matters related to the LGBTQ+ community. This places a burden of representation on individuals. 

Promoting a culture of inclusion and wellness

We at FAIRER Consulting work with organisations to promote wellbeing through inclusion. Our FAIRER Framework is underpinned by a number of core principles. Based on this, we have found three significant factors that assists with promoting a culture of inclusion and wellness. These are: 

1. Switch off

Introducing policies and promoting cultural norms that allow colleagues to mentally switch off from work significantly increases wellbeing, resilience, and motivation. Having a no connection rule – emails, text messages etc, after certain hours and over the weekends is the first starting point. A number of European countries have now introduced laws prohibiting companies from contacting employees after working hours. Virgin UK has introduced a 2-hour per week email ban for all senior management, and Volkswagen does not allow sending or receiving emails after an employee’s shift has ended. The impact on women, disabled groups, carers, and others is positively profound. 

2. Social Connections

A core element of the FAIRER framework is the promotion of corporate cohesion, as an inclusion by design approach. It’s based on research that supports social connectedness and team bonding as a driver for emotional and physical health and wellbeing. Being connected to others drives a sense of feeling respected and values. A key element here is employee voice and the reduction on workplace ingroup and outgroup bias. Facilitating inter-group connections helps to increase psychological safety, while reducing the emotional tax that minorised groups face. 

3. Providing Opportunities

Providing good work opportunities and personal growth, specifically for minority groups, through activities such as mentoring and sponsorship assists with fostering a culture of nurturing. This is often driven by investments in inclusive leadership skills – empathy, perspective taking, insight skills and promoting team collaboration.  

Promoting a culture of wellbeing through inclusive leadership and inclusion by design principles drives behaviours that reduce feelings of being different and promotes belonging, which ultimately increases worker engagement, feelings of self-worth and overall wellbeing. 

About the author

Dan Robertson is MD of FAIRER Consulting and Global Head of ED&I Advisory Services at Hays International. Dan is widely regarded as a global expert on workplace diversity and inclusive leadership. He began his career in race equality and inclusion management, working across public policy and private sector strategy.  Over the last 15 years Dan has spent his time supporting global business leaders to transform their ideas into meaningful action, with a focus on inclusion as a strategic management issue, bias mitigation and inclusive leadership. He has worked extensively across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North America. 

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