“I find it funny when my corporate friends who are sitting in their beautiful high rise office buildings in midtown Manhattan say to me that they have an entrepreneurial spirit,” writes Jeff Shavitz in Forbes earlier this year. “The typical work-day for the entrepreneur is undefinable. It never ends. Your brain is always on over-drive…Thankfully, as an entrepreneur, we have the DNA make-up to lead this crazy lifestyle.”
It should be noted that while Jeff Shavitz is certainly an entrepreneur, he is decidedly neither a geneticist nor a psychologist. That being the case, to Shavitz’s claims about those among us who “have” inherent biological and psychological forcefields to fight off the extensive effects of being overworking, it makes sense to ask, “Do we really?”
We would certainly like to think so, as for many, it is a badge of great accomplishment. Look what I can do, you pansies; 60 hour work weeks are for loafers and hacks. I’m a machine. Even with the opening phrase of “I find it funny when my corporate friends…”, the undertones of arrogance and self-importance are palpable.
In another Forbes article that referenced two high-profile tech entrepreneur suicides in 2013 (Aaron Swartz and Jody Sherman), author Michael Simmons had no difficulty uncovering a bully-esque pressure looming in the high hills of Startupland:
Talking publicly about the topic brought fear of judgement for many including one person who agreed to speak only on the basis of anonymity. Two of the people I interviewed said that things like sharing vacation photos was a taboo as investors might see them.
People who start ‘lifestyle’ businesses and who talk about balance and stress are often put into a bucket of people who aren’t serious about business.
When people are “serious about business”, their time investments of course vary. Some studies and industry proverbs may point you towards averages work weeks of anywhere from 52 hours to beyond 70, and of course crossing into triple digits. If you dig deeper into individual anecdotes though, you will get a sense of the undocumented extremity by reading between the lines (and doing the math) of stories told in tones of modesty.
“My work days are usually split into two shifts – 11 am-5 pm, then 9 pm-3 am,” Justin Zhu, cofounder of Iterable tells Tech.co. “In between those shifts, I like to hit the Crossfit gym.”
“I usually work from home from 9 am-10 am, and then at the office from 10 am-7 pm,” describes Blaine Vess in the same interview—he’s the CEO and cofounder of StudyMode. “I’ll go out to dinner and then work from 10 pm-2 am, depending on workload.”
There are a variety of results that may emerge from such approaches to a profession, the crowd favorite of which is, “success”, in whatever way each individual or their income taxes may define it. Success, however, is not nearly as likely an outcome as the most common output of extreme entrepreneurialism: stress.
In one study conducted by NPR with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public health, it was found that an estimated 26% of Americans were living with “a high level of stress”. In response, Eldar Shafir, a psychologist from Princeton University, had this to say: “Everything I know suggests that this is a pretty massive underestimate.”
Ultimately, stress is irrelevant if it is fleeting and contained. The issue however, is that when it takes chronic form as a result of ongoing provocation—like an overly demanding job—it is anything but contained. It is now clear that chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and of course, suicide. According to the American Psychological Association, more than 75% of all physician office visits are for stress-related issues.
In North America, the broader culture has done a good job of protecting itself from acknowledging the dire risks and realities of being overworked by fragmenting its narratives. We maintain a compartmentalized vocabulary that exploits an incomplete scientific process to earn indemnification; stress is caused by all kinds of things, entrepreneurs are always on the job, jobs can lead to stress, death and decay has been known to come from stress, but, you know…It’s all very circumstantial stuff. Hardly any hard lines of causality.
But go to Japan where they have been forced to explicitly acknowledge, at a national level, that being overworked is a risk of the most solemn kind; a risk born of a ‘Salaryman’ culture that has seen at least a few recent deaths among the 1 in 5 workers the Japanese government has deduced are at risk of elevated mortality because of their jobs.
What they did is they made a word for it: Karoshi. It means, “Death By Overwork”.
And it’s not just a lunch-break buzzword that people sprinkle into rants and whisper informally at funerals; last month, some time after Matsuri Takahashi killed herself by jumping out of a company dormitory, Tokyo officials formally recognized her suicide as the result of karoshi.
Suicide was the cause of death, but karoshi was the cause of the suicide. Not general stress, but stress collected, stacked, and capsized specifically by being far too beholden to work. Granted, making such linear assessments will prove quite challenging in the wake of more complicated cases like cancer or heart disease, but that does not mean that an effort to do so would be meaningless (though perhaps damaging to our favorite economic fantasies of infinite growth and industriousness).
And all this talk of disease and suicide has still yet to say anything of the profound and unavoidable impact that work-related stress–and simply the raw time commitments required–have on family and friends caught in the orbit of the revenue Rockstar and their precipitous ambitions.
As NPR writes, describing the results of their aforementioned study, “…our poll captures only the stress that people are conscious of. Shafir’s work and that of others shows there’s a lot of stress people don’t even realize they have.”
So how well do you really know your entrepreneurial “DNA”, and the “DNA” of those around you? And how much are you willing to bet on that knowledge? Nobody can tell you what’s “cool” for you—and the overworked entrepreneur shall forever be entitled to their empowering brand of bragging rights. Sometimes though, it’s important to take cues from other cultures because a lot of things, even success, can be lost in translation.
Ben is a Toronto-based writer and public speaker with more than a soft spot for 90s hip hop. He has spent over 10 years in business & tech, more than 20 in the arts, and an entire lifetime in a state of perpetual judgment (highly recommended). He is the author of the blogs This Is Your Brain on Dating and Love Gone Cray and can be found pontificating on Thought Catalog, Notable.ca, The Toronto Standard, Offline Magazine, Gasm.org and Huffington Post.
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