I Can’t Come to Work – I am Dead…

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Imagine you have a daughter who means the world to you. Imagine in her 12-year old mind her entire existence is based on the premise of you always being there for her. Imagine one day your daughter casually walks into your room just like she had done thousands of times before. Only this time she finds you … dead. Dead as in still, non-responsive, scary, gone to never come back.  

Scope of Workaholism

This is what happened to a 45-year old Toyota senior engineer at his home in Toyota city. As reported by The Guardian newspaper, his sudden death in January 2006 by ischemia, a shortage of blood to the heart was attributed to more than 80 overtime hours a month including systematic work on nights and weekends as well as frequent overseas trips. According to the same source, in a similar case, a 30-year-old Quality Controller from Toyota dropped dead at work due to heart failure in 2002 after logging extra 106 hours in his final month. High stress led to high blood pressure which contributed to heart disease.

Throughout my career in manufacturing industry I hear a lot about Toyota Production methods, but not nearly enough is said about the dire price paid by the world’s most admired corporation for its high efficiency, productivity and continual improvement – the price of human life. It’s not only Toyota either. Statistics show that 10,000 people a year drop dead in Japan after working 60- or 70-hour weeks. There is even a term “karoshi” that exists in the Japanese language to describe Death by Overwork.

Workaholism or addiction to work is a larger scale problem that deteriorates people’s physical and mental health all over the world. It can and does affect anyone of us if we allow it. For example, here in North America, work-first culture is very common. 43% of Canadian workers feel burned out according to a Staples Survey and over 50% of U.S. employees feel overworked, according to a national study. Contemporary workplaces expect an ideal employee to put work above all – thus, if not creating, then definitely enabling workaholics. Modern technology also makes it easier than ever before to be hooked up to work from anywhere, anytime.

Long-Term Effects

In addition to gaining obesity and other illnesses, people addicted to work lose touch with their human side and their ability to enjoy life. Some postpone important life decisions until a “better” time, others justify all the extra work hours by their need to provide even more for their family and end up alienating their loved ones in the process. Multiple studies show that children of workaholics carried into their adult life depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders. Being a workaholic is to create an emptiness in your life and then deal with it the only way you know – by filling it with even more work.

How to Prevent Death by Overwork?

To break this vicious circle, I suggest we draw a line between our passion for our work and the unhealthy addiction to it. Yes, there will be intense times at work when we need to step up to the plate and put that extra effort to resolve a specific issue.  But if all-nighters become a regular occurrence then there is a problem. A variety of paths may lead to workaholism and each of us may face a unique set of challenges. But one common issue high proportion of self-identified workaholics reported per Statistics Canada is that they did not use time effectively.  This meant they felt more time pressure and felt unable to finish what they planned at the start of the day.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, what we can do is start tracking our time at work to see how much of it goes towards productive and impactful projects vs mere distractions. My own experiments showed that up to 25% of a workday gets easily wasted receiving and processing unneeded information, dealing with co-workers, social media, etc. I suggest staying focused on producing results during the work hours so that you don’t have to dip into your personal time later to keep up with work. Hold distractions until your break times.

Take all the time off you have and make it active. Vacations don’t even have to be too fancy or too expensive – some people that I know rally up their best buddies for soccer matches in nearby fields, others go camping or set out to explore a new city with their family. The point is to purposefully select an activity that will keep you physically and mentally occupied so that you don’t feel tempted to check the work email during your downtime.


A burned out employee is not a productive employee – someone recharged and refreshed will be way more engaged and productive. In fact, some of the greatest Eureka moments in history had come to people not at the end of a deliberate or forceful burnout but when they were away from their normal job setting.  For example, Isaac Newton developed his famous theory of universal gravitation at a sight of a falling apple not at the University of Cambridge where he worked but during his retreat at his family’s estate. Or Paul McCartney woke up one morning with a tune in his head which he eventually turned into “Yesterday”, the most recorded song of all times.

So never feel guilty about the time spent away from work – you will come back to work with the renewed energy. Transitioning back into your routine after a vacation is an issue on its own, but not nearly as deadly as the effects of workaholism.

How do you make sure that your passion for what you do does not turn into an addiction? We would love to hear from you so please share your comments. 


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  1. What an eye-opener about the “best manufacturing practices”. Does it have to be at the expense of a human life?

  2. These stories of workaholism are both amazing to me and heartbreaking. I have experienced burn out from overwork in the past and for me to be in that state every day would seriously affect my ability to perform at my best. Great tips Natella to help us benefit from a proper work / life balance.

    1. I know how passionate you are about your work Jason. But yes, it is a fine line between doing a great job at work and getting addicted to work. Achieving that healthy balance is everything.

  3. Workaholism is indeed a much bigger issue than many realize. I once was in a relationship with a workaholic. As much as I admired in the beginning the person’s high work ethics and his dedication to his job, it soon became apparent that it was more of an illness, a dangerous addiction that took over his life. Nothing else mattered for him nearly as much as his career did and eventually it took its toll not only on our relationship but also on other important relationships in his life and his wellbeing.

  4. I too have experienced the detrimental effects of workaholism but in my case, it was not really by choice. I was put in that position by the company i worked for. And until i broke out of their vicious circle by life had been spiraling down. I wish i made my move earlier, but i still glad I made it.

  5. Workaholism has been defined nowadays as one of the diseases of the 21st century. In the era of high technology, smartphones, laptops and tablets provide opportunities to work from anywhere anytime and for some people that means working all the time. As a result, for workaholics, the day of rest never comes. There is always one more phone call at work to take or one more e-mail to read or to send. For workaholics life is getting harder and harder in every aspect of the life: lost relationships, compromised family life and even health.
    So it’s very important not to turn into a crazy workaholic but be a hard worker with a job that brings pleasure for him/her. And also, lets not not forget to enjoy the benefits of our leisure time that helps maintain high quality of our life. There is a witty saying that on the seventh day, even God rested. Thanks, Natella, for interesting post! Perfect as usual!

    1. Hi Melissa, i quite enjoy reading your thoughtful comments here. Everything you said is so true! In our digital age I find that for so called “knowledge workers” the line between work and leisure time is getting finer and finer just because work is so accessible from everywhere you go using all those devices you listed. So it is up to each of us to set those boundaries and keep them.