2008 – Work – getting the balance right
One of Toyota’s leading engineers has died of overwork,
aged 45, according to a Japanese labour bureau ruling reported
by the Associated Press last week. In the two months before
his death the man, who has not been named, had worked more
than 160 hours of overtime.
The clinical cause of death was heart disease but Japanese
labour laws recognise death through overwork, known as “karoshi,”
allowing the families of those so designated to claim benefits
from employment insurance.
Such deaths have increased steadily since 1987 when Japan’s
health ministry first recognised an association between
mortality and long working hours. Last year, a court in
central Japan ordered the government to pay compensation
to the wife of a Toyota employee who collapsed at work and
died at the age of 30 in 2002.
In the most recent case the family’s lawyer said
that the engineer had been under severe pressure to develop
a new version of one of the company’s best selling
cars. While I wouldn’t dispute the claim, in Japan,
at least, such pressure is generated as much from within
as it is externally.
The culture of work, combined with a sense of duty and
service to the employer is so ingrained that people will
work regularly at nights and weekends, often at the expense
of their families and health.
Compare these attitudes with those of shop owners in the
Via Fillungo the main shopping street of Lucca in Tuscany
where I happened to be taking a stroll last Saturday, the
busiest day of the week.
Come lunchtime at about 1 pm the shutters went down, the
shops were locked and, in some cases, that was the end of
business for the day. Others reopened at 3 pm after a leisurely
break for lunch. They know how to live in Lucca but even
here, I noticed, there is pressure for change. Some of the
clothing chain shops continued to open over lunch.
One of the old established shops was an ironmonger with
a counter, behind which was a wall of boxes containing all
kinds of screws, scissors and doorknobs. The man behind
the counter was the owner and he knew everything there was
to know about his products – sizes, prices and colours,
how they worked and how they fitted together.
Sadly, like Lucca itself, the shop and its owner belong
to another age. But it was a useful reminder that in a world
where increasingly employees have become commodities, we
can still find islands of resistance to the blandness of
that which is easily replicated and which, by its nature,
becomes the first refuge of corporatism.
The Italian holiday gave me time to reflect on the travels
I have undertaken in the past 14 years since I began writing
this column. One of those journeys led me to the dusty shell
of a derelict factory at Midvale, the former steelworks
on the outskirts of Philadelphia where Frederick W Taylor
first took out his stopwatch and began timing how long it
took people to do various elements of their work.
You can find plenty of information on Taylor’s experiments
in books but sometimes there is no substitute for looking
around and kicking the dirt. Walking the floorboards of
Thomas Edison’s former Menlo Park laboratory, reconstructed
at The Henry Ford museum in Deerborn, Michigan, you can
almost feel the excitement of collaboration among his team
of young scientists.
The contrast between Edison’s teamwork and Taylor’s
autocratic time and motion approach in their respective
workplaces is almost palpable.
In New Lanark the Scottish mill village where Robert Owen
developed his ideas of social entrepreneurship, there was
a row of terraced houses called Caithness Street, homes
once to refugees from the Highland clearances. These former
crofters and farmers, dispossessed of their livelihoods,
had never settled to factory work.
There was a similar story at Cromford Mills in Derbyshire,
established by Richard Arkwright in 1746. There, whole families
were enticed to work in the mill with promises of housing,
even a family cow and a vegetable plot to remind them of
the semi-rural and independent artisan-led lives they left
In Kowanyama, a small aboriginal community tucked away
in a remote part of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula,
I spoke with Jerry Mission, an aging member of the Yir-Yoront
tribe who explained how work, for him had no real meaning.
All the meaning he needed in life was embodied in storytelling
among his family and in the hunt for food – something
he never thought of as work.
Contrast these human stories against the philosophies of
the Victorian writers, Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Smiles,
who spoke about work with a sense of religious fervour and
duty similar to the ideas embodied in the aphorisms of Benjamin
No matter where we travel or how far we look back we can
find people of two minds – those whose thinking is
dominated by a need to work, build and prosper, and others,
like the poet W H Davies, who believe we are losing a sense
of ourselves if “we have no time to stand and stare.”
While work has evolved, the struggle between these competing
ethics continues to dominate workplace behaviours and management
thinking. In response to the long office hours that have
emerged from a crumbling of more rigid working structures
in the name of flexibility, we are presented with ill-defined
notions such as work-life balance that try to differentiate
and compartmentalise the things we do.
The shop-workers in Lucca might understand such concepts
but those who rely on web-based information for their work
are struggling, reluctant even, to put a lid on their work.
This is why I believe that jobs and attitudes to work and
recruitment must change fundamentally if we are to retain
a sense of proportion over work and business. Karoshi is
a Japanese export we can all do without.
It is also why my next job is a book exploring various
themes that are influencing changes in work. So this is
my last column in this space. It’s sad to be leaving
– a little bit like moving home – but fourteen
years is long enough in any role, probably too long. I never
realised at the outset there was so much to learn about
work, and still we cannot get it right.
See also: The
Age of the Destructured Career