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).

Total Work

Tired woman in front of computer

Andrew Taggart is an entrepreneur, “practical philosopher,” and prolific writer who works with creative leaders at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and social entrepreneurs at Kaospilot in Denmark. In a recent article, he comments on the state of “total work,” a term coined by German philosopher Josef Pieper in his 1948 book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which described the process by which society increasingly categorizes us as workers above all else.  Like Pieper, Taggart believes human experience derails when work is the dominant cultural norm:

“Imagine that work had taken over the world. It would be the centre around which the rest of life turned. Then all else would come to be subservient to work.

“And how, in this world of total work, would people think and sound and act?

“Everywhere they looked, they would see the pre-employed, employed, post-employed, underemployed and unemployed, and there would be no one uncounted in this census. Everywhere they would laud and love work, wishing each other the very best for a productive day, opening their eyes to tasks and closing them only to sleep.

“Everywhere an ethos of hard work would be championed as the means by which success is to be achieved, laziness being deemed the gravest sin. Everywhere among content providers, knowledge brokers, collaboration architects and heads of new divisions would be heard ceaseless chatter about workflows and deltas, about plans and benchmarks, about scaling up, monetisation and growth.

“[Work becomes total] when it is the centre around which all of human life turns; when everything else is put in its service; when leisure, festivity and play come to resemble and then become work; when there remains no further dimension to life beyond work; when humans fully believe that we were born only to work; and when other ways of life, existing before total work won out, disappear completely from cultural memory.

“Crucially, the attitude of the total worker is not grasped best in cases of overwork, but rather in the everyday way in which he is single-mindedly focused on tasks to be completed, with productivity, effectiveness and efficiency to be enhanced. How? Through the modes of effective planning, skilful prioritising and timely delegation. The total worker, in brief, is a figure of ceaseless, tensed, busied activity.”

Hmmm, sounds a lot like the practice of law…. But it’s not just lawyers, it’s everywhere. For the movers and shakers it’s build, fund, scale, execute, maximize, prioritize, manage, lead. For the rest it’s be early, stay late, be nice to callers and customers, and get through all that email — there might be something important in there. And everywhere it’s build the platform, get the clicks, likes, and follows, join the meetups and podcasts, eat healthy, buy the Peloton and the Beemer, learn a new language, take the beach vacation, drink the microbrew, subscribe to the curated monthly clothing delivery… it all counts.

There’s nothing intrinsically “bad” in all of that. I do a lot of it myself. But when everything we do is organized around trading our time and energy for reward in the marketplace, we’re going to suffer, individually and as a culture:

“To see how [total work]  causes needless human suffering, consider the illuminating phenomenology of total work as it shows up in the daily awareness of two imaginary conversation partners. There is, to begin with, constant tension, an overarching sense of pressure associated with the thought that there’s something that needs to be done, always something I’m supposed to be doing right now. As the second conversation partner puts it, there is concomitantly the looming question: Is this the best use of my time? Time, an enemy, a scarcity, reveals the agent’s limited powers of action, the pain of harrying, unanswerable opportunity costs.

“Together, thoughts of the not yet but supposed to be done, the should have been done already, the could be something more productive I should be doing, and the ever-awaiting next thing to do conspire as enemies to harass the agent who is, by default, always behind in the incomplete now… One feels guilt whenever he is not as productive as possible. Guilt, in this case, is an expression of a failure to keep up or keep on top of things, with tasks overflowing because of presumed neglect or relative idleness.

“The burden character of total work, then, is defined by ceaseless, restless, agitated activity, anxiety about the future, a sense of life being overwhelming, nagging thoughts about missed opportunities, and guilt connected to the possibility of laziness.”

In other words, total work is chronically stressful — a well-documented source of mental, physical, relational, and societal ill health. And the problem is, if we’re not already there, we’re alarmingly close:

“This world [of total work], it turns out, is not a work of science fiction; it is unmistakably close to our own.”

As a result:

“Off in corners, rumours would occasionally circulate about death or suicide from overwork, but such faintly sweet susurrus[i] 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.”

More on that coming up.

[i] I had to look up “susurrus.” It means “whispering, murmuring, or rustling.”