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Work Smarter, Not Harder

Rezina Sultana

Imtiaz Rasul, a computer operator for 15 years, who sometimes works 15 hours at a stretch, has a chronic backache. Minhazul Anwar, with a similar background, has blurred vision, severe backache and acute mental stress. Thirty-two-year-old Arefin Ibrahim, working as a graphic artist, has developed pink patches in his eyes due to overexposure to a computer screen and Suchana Gupta has mild arthritis in the arm-joints and also what is called Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) that affects the three fingers handling the mouse. These are only a few disorders that have become the costs of making a living in a technologically upgraded working world that never sleeps. As somebody remarked, it's always daylight somewhere.

Karoshi-Japanese for death by overwork - is a new word making frequent appearances in applications for compensation in cases of cardio-vascular disease due to excessive work and occupational stress. Most Karoshi victims are said to have worked 3000 hours a year on their jobs, which is roughly twice the figures for France, Germany and Sweden. The observations Keto makes about Japanese society are relevant to all those consumed by their work: Japan is a massive producer without time to enjoy its products, and "wealth without pleasure" is, in his eyes, one of the basic flaws of the Japanese society.

By far, workers in South Korea put in the longest work hours in the world. The average South Korean works 2,390 hours each year, according to the OECD. This is over 400 hours longer than the next longest-working country and 34 per cent more hours than the average in the USA. A typical workweek in South Korea is 44-hours or longer. Most people start their day at 8 am and end at around 7pm or later, often having dinner before returning to work. Until legislation in 2004 that virtually abolished the six-day workweek in large corporations known as 'jaebol', South Korea was the only country in the OECD that worked Saturdays.

Work hours in Japan are decreasing, but many Japanese still work long hours. Recently, Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) has issued a draft report recommending major changes to regulations that govern working hours. The centerpiece of the proposal is an exemption from overtime pay for white-collar workers. South Korea and Japan are the only countries where death work or 'karoshi' is a recognised phenomenon.

The structure of the workweek varies considerably for different professions and cultures. Among salaried workers in the western world, the workweek often consists of Monday through Friday or Saturday with the weekend set aside as a time for personal work and leisure. This stereotypical structure of the workweek has led to the coining of phrases reflecting shared states of mind or moods among workers as they traverse the week.

Several countries have adopted a workweek from Monday morning until Friday noon, either due to religious rules (observation of Sabbath in Israel) or the growing predominance of a 35-37.5 hour workweek in continental Europe. Several Muslim countries have a standard Sunday through Thursday of Saturday through Wednesday workweek leaving Friday for religious observance, and providing breaks for the daily prayer times.

Karoshi or ‘death by overwork’ is a frequently used word in
Japan these days.

Working time is a quantity that can be measured for an individual or, in the aggregate, for a society. In the latter case, a 40-hour workweek would imply that employed individuals within the society, on an average, worked 40 hours per week. Most often, the concern of sociologists and policy-makers focuses on the aggregate variables. If an individual works 60 hours per week, it could simply mean that he or she is enthusiastic about his or her job, not a cause for concern. However, if long workweeks become the norm in a society, these hours almost certainly are not voluntary, and it represents a drought of leisure and a threat to public health.

Most industrialised nations legally mandate a maximum workweek length between 35 and 45 hours per week, and, require two to five weeks per year of holiday. However, the actual hours of work per week cannot fall below a certain minimum without compromising a nation's ability to produce the basic material standards of living.

If the workweek is too short compared to that society's ideal need, then the society suffers from underemployment of labour and human capital. All else being equal, this will tend to result in lower real incomes and a lower standard of living than what could be had with a longer workweek in the same society.

In contrast, a work week that is too long will result in more material goods at the cost of stress-related health problems as well as a dearth of leisure. Furthermore, children are likely to receive less attention from overworked parents, and childrearing is likely to be subjectively worse.

According to a leading child specialist: "Though it is yet to be scientifically established, statistics in various surveys have shown that the number of autistic babies is comparatively higher in affluent working middle class families in Bangladesh." Besides, children of such working parents often suffer from insecurity, loneliness and depression despite being materialistically fulfilled. However, the exact ways in which excessive workweeks affect culture, public health, and education are still debated, but the existence of such a danger is undisputed.

A study published in Industrial and Environmental Medicine found that working long hours increase one's risk of illness and injury, no matter what the job is. Specifically, researchers analysed over 100,000 job records from close to 11,000 workers from 1987 to 2000. Those who routinely put in long days or worked overtime were at an increased risk of occupational injuries. Researchers noted that, overall, more the hours of work, the greater the risk of injury or illness.

Though putting in long hours at the office may help one climb the official ladder, it won't help one to travel down the road to health. In fact, working long hours is not working smart, if one values health. High blood pressure, heart disease, depression, diabetes, chronic infections, general health complaints and death are the eventual consequences.

The dilemma of the corporate employee is precisely summed up by James W Leth in an article on Technology and the Work Ethic where the author says: "To enjoy the good life, you must earn a good salary. To earn a good salary, you can't have a life". He also argues convincingly that hiring more people to work shorter hours will make up for the increased cost of benefits in the long-term assets of a healthier workforce. He even raises questions about whether by giving family life more importance, violent crime will also diminish.

It does not come as a surprise that the word 'business', which now means commercial work, used to mean 'work that produces anxiety' and is derived from the Old English 'bisignis' meaning anxiety. The commercial life of our shrinking planet cannot rest on the shoulders of employees stretched beyond their limits. Nor can men be seduced by technology to increase their expectations of what is possible or not possible to continue indefinitely without paying the price in terms of empty lives and impaired health.

Martin Moore-Ede, a Harvard professor, who is a fatigue expert, shows that the Chernobyl explosion, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the space shuttle Challenger disaster, Three Mile Island, Bhopal and thousands of other accidents and deaths were the result of human error caused by the "round-the-clock pace of our non-stop world." He also heads Circadian Technologies, worldwide consultants to industry, providing solutions that enhance alertness in the workplace.

Balance in life choices has, therefore, become more important than ever. We cannot pay for our greed with our health or unconsciously slide into an addictive work style that takes away what it is supposed to provide in the first place - a good life. If the good life is to be truly meaningful and not merely the trappings of the executive lifestyle, it is necessary to rethink our priorities. Equally, it is important to be discreet in the use of technology and not become slaves to all the beeps that are threatening to rule our lives.

However, it's completely possible to be successful at work and not become blighted by long, stressful hours. The key is to work smarter, not longer. It's impossible to have a productive day if one feels sick, tired or depressed. That's because all of the facets of a healthy person - a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, exercising, keeping stress to a minimum - apply also to a productive person. When one feels good s/he will have the energy, mental capacity and desire to work efficiently.

So don't sabotage yourself by working extreme hours or setting unrealistic goals. Only by working smarter, not harder, will you achieve your life goals without sacrificing the most important thing: your health.

The writer is Assistant Dean, Assistant Professor and Head, Department of English Studies, State University of Bangladesh.

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