When Stuart Nomimizu relocated from Birmingham, England, to Tokyo his friends and family in the UK started to worry. Not only did they rarely hear from him, but he seemed to always be at the office from early morning until very late at night. His working hours seemed so extreme, that they didn’t always believe he was working as hard as he said.
To convince them, he documented one week of his life as a so-called “salaryman” in Tokyo’s financial-services industry and posted it online so they could understand his new lifestyle.
The resulting video went viral on YouTube, racking up more than one million views. It depicts a hectic week in 2015 during the financial sector’s busy season — from January to March — when Nomimizu clocked in 78 working hours and 35 sleeping hours between Monday and Saturday (before working another six hours that Sunday, which you don’t see in the video).
Marathon workdays are so entrenched in the Japanese culture that there’s even a word, karoshi, that quite literally means ‘overwork death’
It got to the point where Nomimizu was putting in so many 80-hour work weeks that he fainted in his apartment one night and came-to right next to a TV stand, which he’d narrowly missed. When the rush period was finally over, he says the entire office got “horrendously sick.”
While Nomimizu’s excessive workload was somewhat temporary, he says “there are people working for companies in Tokyo that do that sort of workload and have that life day-in, day-out all year long.” Indeed, marathon workdays are so entrenched in the culture that there’s even a Japanese word, karoshi, that quite literally means “overwork death.”
The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare released the government’s first report on karoshi this October, and it found that nearly one in four (23%) companies have some employees who work more than 80 hours of overtime per month.
If you’re the first person to leave, you won’t be viewed as a team player
“The Japanese have a very high sense of respect for their fellow colleagues, but there is also an inability to speak one’s mind,” Nomimizu says. “So you have a lot of people at a lower level who will stay in the office until their manager leaves at a ridiculously late hour.” The 26-year-old explains that if you’re the first person to leave, you won’t be viewed as a team player.
Are the long-working Japanese any more productive than their global counterparts? Nomimizu doesn’t think so. Indeed, there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that working longer hours is not only bad for our health, but also detrimental for our careers and poor for a company’s overall productivity.
When less is more
If there’s another country that’s notorious for its long work hours and lack of time off, it’s the United States. A recent Gallup poll found that the average full-time employee in the US works a 47-hour week, nearly a full workday longer than the standard nine-to-five schedule. Moreover, nearly one in five workers (18%) reports working 60 hours or more per week.
People who take more time off — 11 days or more — are more likely to get a raise or bonus than people who take 10 or fewer days
Despite sacrificing time off with family and friends to toil away in the office, a separate report from the US-based campaign Project: Time Off discovered that long-working office martyrs were less likely than their peers to have received a bonus in the last three years.
“We actually find that people who take more time off — 11 days or more — are more likely to get a raise or bonus than people who take 10 or fewer days,” says Katie Denis, lead researcher at Project: Time Off. “So if you’re not getting ahead — and we find no correlation between hours worked and getting ahead — then what are you doing it for?”
Laura Vanderkam, time management expert and author of 168 Hours, notes that, “your brain, like anything, can’t run on unlimited.” In fact, it’s actually bad for us to push beyond our limits. “As we work past a point of diminishing returns we wind up making mistakes,” she says. “We also don’t bring our best ideas and energy to the problems we’re trying to solve.”
There are several remedies to overworking. For instance, many of us believe we need to be in the office both when our boss shows up and when he or she leaves. However, Vanderkam thinks that’s a big (and often misguided) assumption. “Maybe your boss wants the place to herself in the morning and she’s actually annoyed that you’re getting there early, too.”
Vanderkam also thinks a lot of people aren’t willing to consciously build breaks into their daily schedule out of fear they won’t be seen as hard workers. “So we sabotage our own productivity by saying ‘I’m just going to work all day, have my lunch at my desk, and fall into the 2:30 pm rabbit hole of the internet’,” she explains.
A silver lining
While trading rest for unpaid overtime is clearly a bad deal for employees, it’s actually pretty lousy for employers, too. A Stanford University study found that employee output declines sharply after 50 hours per week and nosedives after 56 hours to the point where someone who puts in 70 hours doesn’t produce anything more with those additional 14 hours. Similar studies have linked long hours with absenteeism, long-term memory loss and impaired decision-making skills.
So what are companies doing to combat the inevitable burnout? Major Japanese corporations have actually taken a lead on the issue. Toyota now limits overtime to 360 hours a year (or an average of 30 hours monthly), while ad agency Dentsu just released an eight-point plan (including regular vacation encouragement and lights out at the office by 22:00) to improve its work environment after the high-profile suicide of one of its employees.
In Germany, meanwhile, major companies like BMW and Volkswagen have limited after-hours employee emails to combat a growing culture of hyper-connectivity. In the US, leading investment banks like Credit Suisse and JPMorgan Chase have issued new guidelines to discourage analysts and associates (particularly the lower-ranking millennial workers) from coming to the office on weekends.
Vanderkam notes that when you run a machine without maintenance you run a high risk of it breaking down over time, and possibly at an incredibly inopportune moment. It seems many companies have started to realise that the same is true of humans, too.
To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, head over to our Facebook page or tweet us on Twitter.