A New Way to Work

Success and change without burnout by Dr. Geri Puleo

Archive for the month “September, 2015”

Worked to Death: The Physical Consequences of Extreme Burnout

work-til-death-1024x768Karoshi (or “death by overwork”) is real.  It is not some exaggerated description of the exhaustion of burnout, but is a documented, very serious condition that has dire consequences for its victims.

In my training and consulting practice, I’ve heard many people emphatically state that their work is “killing” them. Fortunately, I have not had a client die at his or her desk as a result of severe work overload — even though many experienced chronic or acute physical disease.

But death by overwork is a very real phenomenon.

The term used to describe this condition is “karoshi.”  It is the business counterpart of the Japanese form of suicide called hari-kiri. In fact, karoshi has been recognized as a cause of death in Japan since the 1980s.

This obsessive attitude toward work has been hailed by some critics as the reason for Japan’s high levels of productivity.

Recently in May 2015, the Japanese Prime Minister’s cabinet approved a bill exempting the option of overtime payments to workers who earn more than 10.75 million yen ($88,000 USD) annually. This so-called “no overtime pay bill” focuses more on productivity (rather than work hours) and presumably offers greater flexibility to workers.

But the proposed bill has been met with opposition by critics who argue that the number of overwork-related health problems and deaths could potentially increase if the bill is put into law.

What Does Karoshi Have to Do With American Workers?

Japan’s proposed “no overtime pay bill” is similar to the exempt status of certain workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act – those workers who are paid a salary, meet minimum compensation thresholds, and have duties that fall within the FLSA’s requirements for exemption.

Like exempt employees under FLSA, many Japanese workers perform duties and responsibilities of their jobs via “free overtime.” In other words, they are completing important elements of their jobs but not being compensated for the corresponding hours.

Some studies suggest that Japanese workers tend to work much longer than those in other countries. While 11.3% of U.S. employees work over 50 hours per week, this is only half of the 22.3% of Japanese who log in these long hours. Although official Japanese figures show that there are an average of 400 overwork-related deaths per year, some researchers suggest that the actual numbers could easily approach 20,000.

Read that number again: 20,000 hard working, dedicated, high achieving Japanese employees die from overworking.

Are American workers just as susceptible to death by overwork – or is this exclusively a Japanese phenomenon?

While I wasn’t able to find any research on karoshi per se in U.S. workers, there is some staggering evidence that the typical American “workaholic” is on the path to not only burnout, but also karoshi. (FYI: The term “workaholism” was coined in 1980 – way before the advent of the 24/7 e-leash of emails, texts, and smart phones.)

  • The refrain in many organizations is “time is money.” To stay ahead, employees attempt to work more hours with less sleep, relying on caffeine to overcome the effects of sleep deprivation.
  • There is mounting evidence that information overload, work overload, impossible deadlines, and limited resources have surpassed our human ability to process all this information – we are simply not hardwired to work such long hours without respite.
  • “Vacationitis” is growing as fewer and fewer workers take the vacation days that are owed to them each year. According to the March 2015 Project: Time Off report, over $224 billion of unused vacation time sits on corporate balance sheets. The result? Employee health, happiness, productivity, and performance decline – which leads to lowered overall organizational performance.
  • And for the record, a Japanese worker found slumped over his desk in the morning will trigger a karoshi investigation – yet, if the same situation occurs in the U.S., the cause would be considered to be “heart failure.”

Puleo’s Pointers:  Are You at Risk for Karoshi?

Although my primary area of expertise is workplace burnout, I can’t help but be concerned that a burned out worker can succumb to death by overwork if remedial action is not taken immediately.

If chronic distress precipitates burnout, then a full-blown burnout might easily contribute to karoshi.

Some of the warning signs of burnout are also indicative of karoshi. To avoid both, take corrective action if you experience any or all of the following symptoms:

  • You routinely work more than 60 hours per week.
  • You can’t remember the last time you took a real vacation day that did NOT tether you to the office via an e-leash.
  • You obsessively talk about work – and have trouble discussing or focusing on anything else.
  • You take technology to bed with you.
  • You have trouble sleeping, eating, or communicating.
  • You feel out of control…instead of being the master of your destiny, your work has become an unforgiving master of your time, energy, and resources.

I urge you to take action if you relate to any of these symptoms. Feel free to explore this blog for other articles and mini-webinars on burnout. Also, I will be launching a new series of on-demand workshops focusing on how to overcome and recover from burnout. (For more information, please contact me at gpuleo@ChangeWithoutBurnout.com.)

Workaholism, burnout, and karoshi are NOT inescapable byproducts of today’s fast-paced work environment. Actively seek the help that is available so that you can reclaim your energy, creativity, and uniqueness. There will never be another you – don’t let burnout or karoshi shorten your life. Isn’t it time for you to enjoy ALL aspects of your life?

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning company focused on techniques to eliminate the 5 workplace stressors that create and sustain burnout:  Job Change, Organizational Change, Work-Life Imbalance, Poor Leadership and Management, and Ineffective Human Resources.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, author, blogger, career coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action,” watch her TEDx Talk on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

Burnout: Causes and Cures (Interview with Dr. Geri Puleo, 2014 Kiss Burnout Goodbye Telesummit)

Last October, I was thrilled to be a keynote speaker in Jeanell Innerarity’s Kiss Burnout Goodbye Virtual Summit. I thought that you might want to listen to our interview: in it, we discuss how people burn out, how to overcome burnout, and even talk about “laughter yoga.” And, yes, there is a Q&A at the end!

I spoke with Jeanell this summer and am also pleased that we’ll be contributing content to each other’s blogs over the next few months. She is a practitioner, teacher, and researcher in the field of somatic and mind-body arts, as well as a yoga instructor and reflexologist. Our complementary practices strive to finally reduce the stress and eliminate burnout in today’s hyperactive, constantly changing world.

Please check out Jeanell’s website at www.jeanellinnerarity.com.

NOTE: There were a few audio problems in the middle of the broadcast, but they were quickly resolved. I’ve also provided the audio podcast if you’d like to listen without any visuals.

 Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning company focused on techniques to eliminate the 5 workplace stressors that create and sustain burnout:  Job Change, Organizational Change, Work-Life Imbalance, Poor Leadership and Management, and Ineffective Human Resources.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, author, blogger, career coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action,” watch her TEDx Talk on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

 

Forgetting How to Laugh: An Overlooked Sign of Burnout

Smiley laughingEver notice how much better you feel when you laugh out loud?  Scientific studies have shown that your belly laughs play a vital role in your overall health and well-being.

The Mayo Clinic found that laughing has an immediate effect on your stress response by stimulating circulation and relaxing your muscles.

Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air that stimulates your vital organs and triggers your brain to release those “feel good” endorphins throughout your body.  Laughter really is the best medicine.

So why do we “forget” to laugh when we’re burned out?

I first noticed this connection when one of the participants in my research on burnout during organizational change mentioned that one of her first signs of burnout was losing her sense of humor.

Think about the last time that you were stressed out:

  • Did it seem like it was just “too much work” to find the humor in a stressful situation?
  • Did you actually get angry when a coworker or family member kidded or teased you about something?
  • Did you even consciously try to prevent yourself from laughing at something that you would have normally found to be funny?
  • Were you afraid that if you did allow yourself to start laughing…you might end up crying instead?

One of the things that constantly surprises me is how many adults tend to snicker, giggle, or just smile rather than let themselves full out belly laugh. I’m not sure if it’s that laughing out loud is somehow “not cool” – or if we are simply taking ourselves too seriously.

Even worse, what if the lack of laughter or a sense of humor is directly proportionate to the level of burnout that someone is experiencing?

Whatever the reason, when was the last time that you actually laughed out loud?

How Laughter Reduces Stress

Although we intuitively know that we feel better after a good laugh, there has been a growing body of research investigating the physical changes that occur during and after laughter.

In addition to the short-term effects relating to endorphins, laughter stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles. It also specifically targets your body’s stress response by initially increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, then “cooling down” that stress response. Stress and burnout usually manifest in tightened muscles – but a good laugh aids in muscle relaxation. The result: an immediate positive, relaxed feeling.

If you laugh frequently, you will also experience some substantial long-term benefits. Over time, stress compromises your immune system.  The positive feelings associated with laughter release neuropeptides that not only fight the stress, but also protect your body from more serious illnesses. Laughter even produces its own natural pain killers; for people with certain types of muscle disorders, a good laugh can actually break the pain-spasm cycle.

And people who laugh seem to be happier, more personally satisfied, and have better relationships with the people around them.

Learning How to Laugh Again

Laughing is closely linked to happiness – it’s difficult to feel burned out and stay burned out when you are happy and laughing.

But can you make someone laugh? Even master stand-up comics aren’t “funny” to everyone, so telling a joke might not work.

Here are two ways to reduce your stress by laughing – particularly when you’re too stressed out to think that anything is funny.

  • Anticipation…just THINKING about something funny can trigger the beneficial effects of laughter.

In a study conducted at Loma Linda University in California, researchers discovered that seeking out positive experiences that make you laugh can significantly impact your body’s ability to stay well.

Just anticipating “mirthful laughter” releases beta-endorphins (that alleviate depression) and human growth hormone (HGH, which support the immune system). Such anticipation also decreases levels of three important stress hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, and dopac).

As your stress levels decrease, your overall wellness increases – and laughter is a great way to reduce stress.

  • Laughing yoga.

Yes, there really is such a practice! Created by an Indian medical doctor, laughter yoga is usually conducted in groups and appears to tap into the joyful inner child that often lies dormant in all of us.

An interesting finding is that the body’s responses to the act of laughing are not based on whether the laughter is real or fake. In other words, simply laughing (even if you might not initially think that there is anything funny) generates the same physiological and psychological benefits.

Can’t laugh if you can’t find anything funny? Think again: have you ever noticed that when you force yourself to laugh…you tend to start finding your laughter funny…and then you laugh even more? If you’re in a group, the more you laugh, the more everyone around you will start laughing, too — and the overall stress levels in the group will decrease.  (My friends and I used to call this a “laugh attack.”)

Little children are great at making laughter contagious: when one starts laughing, suddenly all of them find it hysterically funny and keep on laughing…and laughing…and laughing.

Even though stressed out parents are creating stressed out kids, our innate inner child is curious, joyful, happy, and stress-free. No matter how old we are chronologically, that inner child wants to come out to play and laugh. Laughter can be a great way to tap into the creativity and joy in the child in all of us.

Laughter may truly be the best medicine to reduce the stress in our lives. It’s free, feels good, and has long-lasting benefits.

So, in addition to eating that apple a day to keep the doctor away, let’s all try to have a good belly laugh every day to keep burnout away!  Ho, ho, ho!  🙂

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning company focused on techniques to eliminate the 5 workplace stressors that create and sustain burnout:  Job Change, Organizational Change, Work-Life Imbalance, Poor Leadership and Management, and Ineffective Human Resources.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, author, blogger, career coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action,” watch her TEDx Talk on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

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