blog-0290431001369860838A Japanese labor bureau has ruled that one of Toyota’s top car engineers – aged 45 – has died from working too many hours.  In the two months up to his death, the man averaged more than 80 hours of overtime per month.  In Japan, deaths from overwork are known as “karoshi.”

While death from overworking is becoming more common in Japan, how about us here in Southern California?  Yesterday, two of my clients told me (individually) that they are finding it hard to leave work and go home.  Work is becoming their life.  I asked each of them, “Why don’t you want to go home?”  They gave me two different scenarios to justify their workaholism: (#1) “My work is more fulfilling than my personal life”, and (#2) “With possible layoffs at my company, to keep my job I need to do overtime, overtime, overtime and do it gladly (and with a smile)”.

Let’s look at scenario #1:  What happens when your job becomes the best part of your life?  Is this a bad thing?  Doesn’t everyone yearn for work they really love?  Well…sure…but, there’s loving what you do, and then there’s using work to avoid the parts of your life that are a mess.  Some people use work to avoid facing problems in their relationships.

Wouldn’t you rather go somewhere on the weekend where people love you – because you work so long (and hard) – or would you rather be home with your partner talking about the problems in your relationship?  In the short run, it’s understandable.  But, in the long run, what happens when work squeezes the juice out of the rest of your life?  When you feel lonely at home or your personal life seems empty, going home can be scary.  Work may seem safer.  But how long can you put off facing your loneliness or a lack of outside interests/friends or – that ultimate scary place – your empty bed?

People say that technology frees us up to have more leisure time, but is that true?  For some of my clients, it feeds their addiction to work.  They are those hard-working types who get up in the night to go to the bathroom and seize the moment to check their e-mails, or maybe their cell phone is buzzing away on their nightstand, or under the pillow. This kind of compulsive behavior is linked to depression, but – let’s be real here – it’s also linked to climbing the ladder of success.

Let’s look at the reality of scenario #2:  in his article “Success at work is a drug”, writer Stefan Stern addresses the relationship between highly committed, obsessive professionals and whether or not they ultimately achieve “success” in their careers.  Success at work CAN like a drug.  But, if used like a drug, it’s ultimately self-defeating.  For example, can you enjoy your success at work?  Or is your mantra:  “Don’t stop, don’t slow down”?

It’s easy to mock this type of crazy-making ideology, but what if you work in an ultra-aggressive, hyper-competitive environment?  To rise to the top in places like this, many “experts” tell you to plan strategically:  manipulate the right people, create the right impression and create a positive image for yourself.  According to them (and the books they’re selling), doing a really good job isn’t enough anymore…career success is all about your image and how you present yourself.

What’s a normal, healthy person to do?

I like Stefan Stern’s model of a successful business leader.  One of the top executives Stern interviewed claims:  “there really are only 10 or 12 key decisions you have to get right every year.  Concentrate on them, and aim for a success rate of at least 80 per cent. Do that and all will be well”.  Sterns found that working harder and harder – doing “the wrong thing righter” – does not lead to success at work.  “If something comes up that requires seven-day working…then I will do it,” a multi-millionaire CEO told him,  “But it rarely does. I think many people just use work as a way of not confronting themselves.”

Ah, yes, confronting yourself.  This brings us back to the question I posed to my clients:  one I suggest that you obsessive, workaholic types ask yourself after your next 15-hour day:  “Why don’t I want to go home?”