Living to work or working to die?

In August 2013, Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year old Bank of America summer intern, made headlines when he was found dead in his apartment. Erhardt’s last 72 hours were spent working intensely and largely without stop, and his death raised concerns about the potentially fatal effects of long working hours. It is easy to view this as an isolated case—an unfortunate mixture of ambition, health conditions and work culture—but it may not be.

Deaths from overwork are becoming increasingly visible. The Japanese have perhaps given the most attention to this phenomenon, giving it a name—karoshi—and even recognizing it as a legitimate claim for workers’ compensation.   BloombergBusinessweek recently reported that approximately 1,600 Chinese workers die each year from overwork. In the U.S., overwork is not often viewed as a direct cause of death but is associated with higher risks of heart disease, diabetes and obesity, all of which can shorten one’s life expectancy.

Work-related deaths are not new. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an estimated 23,000 Americans suffered workplace fatalities in 1913. Fast forward a century, and we still find that, on average, 150 workers die each day from work-related conditions.

However, attention to workplace deaths, particularly in the U.S. media, has generally focused on two types of events: what I refer to as honorable deaths and negligent deaths. Last year’s loss of 19 Arizona firefighters would qualify as the first type. Honorable deaths generally refer to those deaths that occur in high-risk occupations—fire fighting, local or national security and commercialfirefighter air travel—dedicated to the service of others. Risk, including the risk of death, is a known aspect of the job, and those who do lose their lives do so in the service of others. These deaths are viewed as tragic yet heroic, and communities often pay tribute to those who lost their lives.

Negligent deaths are also tragic, but in a different way. While honorable deaths are often seen as a service to others, negligent deaths are viewed as entirely unnecessary. As such, they often spark feelings of frustration, accusations of blame and in some cases even serve to bring about needed reforms. High profile examples include the 2010 West Virginia coal mine disaster and BP Oil rig explosion, and more recently, the Bangladesh factory collapse. These workplace tragedies are ap_bangladesh_factory_collapse_ll_130424_wgviewed as a failure in workplace safety, with many lamenting the fact that such deaths could have been prevented.

The emerging interest in death from overwork, suggests several qualitative differences from both honorable and negligent deaths. First, the professional and managerial class is the focus of much of the discussion around overwork deaths, while honorable and negligent deaths have typically (although not always)[1] focused on the working-class and/or blue-collar jobs. Second, overwork deaths are not marked by singular, tragic events taking multiple lives. They are spread out over time, making the link between intense work habits and death more ambiguous. Moreover, deaths from overwork are more isolated; they are individual tragedies rather than a sudden collective loss.

Perhaps as a result of these differences, responses to overwork deaths are more varied and, in many cases, more muted than other deaths at work. On the one hand, working oneself to death can be understood as honorable. When work ethic is highly valorized, overwork is often seen as a badge of honor–a service to one’s company and/or family. Yet in many cases, this service is largely a financial one, rather than a protective one, as is the case in other honorable deaths. On the other, overwork deaths may be seen as unnecessary—with blame attached either to the over-ambitious or “work-addicted” individual or to a negative work culture. Yet, without a collective event, feelings of anger are likely to remain at the local level, within one’s immediate social groups.

Why is this interesting? As a sociologist, it sparks several questions. First, it raises questions about the meaning of one’s work life. What tasks are worthy of risking human life, and upon what criteria do we make these decisions? Second, in an environment in which work-life balance is hotly debated and, in many cases, viewed as a privilege, how do people make sense of deaths by HR_Strange_But_True_Does_Your_Organization_Value_Work_Life_Balanceoverwork? Does the rising awareness of death by overwork have the potential to bring a sense of gravity to work-life discussions, or are they viewed as the consequence of personal choices?  And lastly, what counts as death by overwork? Where do we draw the line between the overall effects of a more sedentary post-industrial working style and the effects of acute work stress?   And what about overwork among the working class—the individual forced to work harmful overnight shifts or the service workers exposed to cleaning agents and other chemicals over long periods of time? Answers to these questions are likely to tell us more about how we, as a society, view work, quality of life and inequality.

[1] Pilots, for example, are one exception.

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