Total Work 2: Asleep on the Subway

sleeping on the subway 2

I saw it often during a visit to Seoul:  people sacked out on the subway, on the bus, at coffee shops, on park benches… The practice is common all around Asia. The Japanese have a word for it:  “inemuri.”

“It is often translated as ‘sleeping on duty,’ but Brigitte Steger, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at Downing College, Cambridge, who has written a book on the topic, says it would be more accurate to render it as ‘sleeping while present.’”

”Napping in Public? In Japan, That’s a Sign of Diligence,” NY Times (Dec 16, 2016).

Inemuri means it’s more polite to be present, even if you nod off. In the workplace, that means it’s better to sleep on the job than not show up. Besides, it gets you brownie points:

“In most countries, sleeping on the job isn’t just frowned upon, it may get you fired… But in Japan, napping in the office is common and culturally accepted. And in fact, it is often seen as a subtle sign of diligence: You must be working yourself to exhaustion.”

And of course working yourself to exhaustion is a good thing. Add the Asian practice of wee hours business drinking and you might also be napping on the pavement — another common sight.

sleeping on the subway 3

Run a Google Images search on the topic and the sheer volume of visuals is striking — these are seriously tired people.[1] It’s easy to imagine the impact of that level of fatigue on job performance, let alone daily life. The cognitive impairment and other health risks of sleep deprivation are well documented,[2] It’s especially bad in the professions — lawyers and doctors are chief among the sleep-deprived.

There’s also a deeper, darker side of chronic, overworked exhaustion, as we saw in last week’s post:

“Off in corners, rumours would occasionally circulate about death or suicide from overwork, but such faintly sweet susurrus would rightly be regarded as no more than local manifestations of the spirit of total work, for some even as a praiseworthy way of taking work to its logical limit in ultimate sacrifice.”

“If Work Dominated Your Every Moment Would Life be Worth Living?” Aeon Magazine (2018)

Wait a minute! It’s praiseworthy to work yourself to death?! Believe it. And it’s not just in Asia, it’s all around the world, as people everywhere make the steady march toward the state of total work.[3]

dying for a paycheckStanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer recently wrote a book about workplace-induced ill health and death. The following is from a Stanford Business interview, “The Workplace is Killing People and Nobody Cares” (March 15, 2018).

“Jeffrey Pfeffer has an ambitious aspiration for his latest book. “I want this to be the Silent Spring of workplace health,” says Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. ‘We are harming both company performance and individual well-being, and this needs to be the clarion call for us to stop. There is too much damage being done.’”

This is from the book blurb:

“In one survey, 61 percent of employees said that workplace stress had made them sick and 7 percent said they had actually been hospitalized. Job stress costs US employers more than $300 billion annually and may cause 120,000 excess deaths each year. In China, 1 million people a year may be dying from overwork. People are literally dying for a paycheck. And it needs to stop.

“In this timely, provocative book, Jeffrey Pfeffer contends that many modern management commonalities such as long work hours, work-family conflict, and economic insecurity are toxic to employees—hurting engagement, increasing turnover, and destroying people’s physical and emotional health—and also inimical to company performance.

“Jeffrey Pfeffer marshals a vast trove of evidence and numerous examples from all over the world to expose the infuriating truth about modern work life: even as organizations allow management practices that literally sicken and kill their employees, those policies do not enhance productivity or the bottom line, thereby creating a lose-lose situation.”

The Japanese word for work-related death is karōshi, which Wikipedia says can be translated literally as ‘overwork death.” The comparable term in South Korea is “gwarosa.”Call it what you like, give it a special name or not — death by overwork is total work taken to its utmost.

We don’t like to think about it, talk about it, admit it. It’s not our problem. Let the pros handle it. We wouldn’t know what to do anyway.

Maybe it’s time we learned.

If you like the posts in this blog, you might enjoy Iconoclast.blog, which focuses on several themes that have appeared in this blog over the years, such as how belief creates culture and culture creates behavior, and why growth and change are difficult but doable. You can also follow Iconoclast.blog on Facebook,

[1] See also “Death by Work:  Japan’s Habits of Overwork Are Hard To Change,” The Economist (2018)

[2] For an introduction, see Wikipedia and Harvard Business Review.

[3] See, e.g.,Britain’s Joyless Jobs Market Can Be Bad For Your Health,” The Financial Times (Aug. 2017). See alsoDead For Dough:  Death by Overwork Around the World,” The Straits Times (first published April 6, 2016, updated Oct 6, 2017).

Author: Kevin Rhodes

Kevin Rhodes draws insight and perspective from his prior career in law, business, and consulting, from his studies in economics, psychology, neuroscience, entrepreneurship, and technology, and from personal life experience.

3 thoughts on “Total Work 2: Asleep on the Subway”

  1. Aside from the very real health concerns, working very long hours usually equates to low-productivity levels by employees. I’ve learned a great deal about this often ignored fact through my Japanese studies and via close friends who are part of the corporate culture in South Korea. It’s my belief–and research supports this–that the average worker is only highly productive for a relatively short period of time each day, around three hours according to many studies. My Korean friends say the expectation within a company is that workers stay at the office until the boss leaves, even though the boss may be in his office asleep (as you note in your article).

    I worked at a Japanese university for a brief period of time and observed the exhaustion exhibited by much of the Japanese staff. They worked 6 days per week, 12 hours per day and often had a 90 minute commute in each direction at the beginning and end of each day. [15 hour days 6 days per week = 90 hours per week.] While they were culturally programmed to be polite, it was clear that their ability to interact and enthusiasm for their positions was highly compromised due to physical exhaustion.

    I also experienced this phenomenon during my 17 years working on feature film and television productions. I witnessed crew members who were so tired they would constantly bump into each other attempting to do their jobs on set after working 15-18 hours straight.

    Thanks Ken for continuing to share very relevant articles on the changes taking place in the way we work!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I believe it…when I worked for a fast paced, competitive engineering company in denver and rode the light rail I would work overtime most days of the week. I would fall asleep on my short light rail ride home…sometimes missing my stop cause of sleeping too soundly.
    Kevin thanks for the Post sir!!

    Liked by 1 person

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