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Bob Sullivan, NBC News contributor
Jan. 23, 2014 at 1:26 AM ET

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We're working long hours, sleeping less and pumping ourselves up with caffeine. It's a recipe for disaster.
Jeff Hutchens / Getty Images file

We're working long hours, sleeping less and pumping ourselves up with caffeine. It's a recipe for disaster.

More people are living a life marked by energy-drink-fueled all-nighters.

A toxic combination of digital leashes, the hypnotic effects of technology, economic anxiety, and caffeine is encouraging workers to push far beyond normal limits in the name of hard work.

It’s a costly trend. Consequences range from poor work and long unscheduled absences, to workers paying with their health, and in rare cases, their lives.

Take Mita Diran. The 24-year-old advertising copywriter worked for 30 hours straight just before Christmas, bragged that she was "still going strooong" on Twitter, and dropped dead within hours. The young Indonesian was the latest high-profile victim of what some are now calling "binge working."

Diran's story is eerily similar to that of Li Yuan, an ad writer at Ogilvy & Mather in China, whose heart stopped in May after similar bouts of overwork.

It's also similar to the sorry tale of Moritz Erhardt. He died after a three-day work binge at Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch office in London. Erhartdt was a 21-year-old intern, and apparently desperate to prove himself worthy of a full-time job in banking. The death has prompted the bank to take steps to ease the frantic working conditions for ambitious junior staffers.

To this sad list you might even add a Taiwanese gamer known only as Diablo, who died in 2012 after a 40-hour video game binge.

Ken Matos researches workplace trends at the Familes and Work Institute, a non-profit. He points out that a few binge working deaths certainly don't make a trend, but he cautions that they are "a canary in a coal mine." More widespread consequences, he said, will be reduced life spans and other health impacts for workers who no longer take breaks, even on nights and weekends.

"While dropping over dead at one’s desk is likely to be a rare event, experiencing negative health consequences and reduced lifespans, as a result of decades intense work lives with little opportunity for regular recovery, is a more likely possibility," Matos said.

Virtual overwork is just the most obvious representation of a larger trend. Americans, for example, now toil for eight-and-a-half hours a week more than they did in 1979. This phenomenon has sometimes been called “the Great Speed- Up,” as workers simply can’t seem to jump off the digital rat-wheel.

The effect has shown up in government data, which indicates that 35 percent of Americans worked on weekends in 2011. We’re working at night, too, ruining the potential for those eight hours of rest. A survey in 2012 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that almost a third of working adults get six hours or less of sleep a night.

Technology has a lot to do with it. Not very long ago, when a worker left the office at 5 p.m., there was simply no way to get work out of them until they arrived the next day at 9 a.m. No one would expect a response to an inquiry made at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon.

But technology's influence on the collapsing boundaries between work and life is subtle, too.

Matos points out that email has created a vicious cycle in most workplaces, with workers expecting instant responses from each other at all times -- no one wants to be the team member who blocked a discussion for an afternoon by not replying. What was designed as an asynchronous, one-way-at-a-time communication tool -- akin to old fashioned postal mail -- is now synchronous, instant communication, like a phone call. It's as if we were all trying to carry on hundreds of phone calls at once. It's enough to drive anyone crazy.

Or to make us sick.

A recent survey of medical research published in the American Journal of Epidemiology lays out the case against overwork:
•Long working hours have been found to be associated with cardiovascular and immunologic reactions, reduced sleep duration, unhealthy lifestyle, and adverse health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, subjective health complaints, fatigue, and depression.

•There is increasing evidence to suggest the importance of midlife risk factors for later dementia. Furthermore, the link between cognitive impairment and later life dementia is clearly established.

It's not fair to blame technology entirely for the problem. Read Diran's tweets, and you hear a typical young worker who is half complaining, half bragging about her 2 a.m. nights at the office. Binge working is encouraged by many workplace cultures. One reason Matos says: Companies measure and reward the wrong things.

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Comment Preferences

  •  No. (6+ / 0-)

    I took early retirement in 2010.

    Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

    by JeffW on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 05:18:04 AM PST

  •  We're being worked to death in the USA (6+ / 0-)

    It's part of a deliberate strategy, I believe. If employees will put in the extra hours, then fewer of them are required and the company will earn higher profits by having lower labor costs.

    This is worst in the white-collar knowledge-based/technology world, where the rewards for overwork are intangible: public recognition of specialized expertise or a "promotion" to mid-level management, with no increase in salary, just more responsibility and more unpaid hours. It's also got to stop. The larger unions should really look at moving into organizing salaried workers, not simply hourly laborers. Enough of us have seen that there is no upward path to an easier time at the job, except for a chosen, special few.


    •  I recently walked away from a job (5+ / 0-)

      in the knowledge-based/technology world that was being handled exactly like you said. I had recently received a "promotion" that involved a lot more responsibility and more hours but was taken off hourly wage and moved to salary. I ended up losing money overall and doing more work.

      When I attempted to communicate to upper management that I had a problem with this I was told that it was the industry standard. So, now I'm changing industries because that is nuts.

    •  I've had a similar disturbing thought recently: (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Calamity Jean, radarlady

      Where in the real world are you tangibly rewarded for having a college degree? You don't receive lower interest rates on loans; you don't receive extra leads on clients; your customers don't place a priority on paying your bills; investors don't give your business plan an additional look.

      But offer someone your labor, suddenly people climb out of the woodwork to tell you how valuable and important you are, and how they can't wait to hire you... as long as you work for just a little bit less money and work a few more hours than someone else with the same degree.

      Is that the long con? We might earn more money with a degree, but we're also giving away a larger percentage of our labor.

      I write this as someone with two bachelor degrees who makes more money waiting tables than I could earn at most salaried jobs in my fields.

      I'm living in America, and in America you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business.

      by CFAmick on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 11:38:53 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you NBC (15+ / 0-)

    for blaming the worker. Next up: why are West Virginians drinking so many chemicals?

    Early to rise and early to bed Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and dead. --Not Benjamin Franklin

    by Boundegar on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 05:34:44 AM PST

  •  Technology has also made it easier to work (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    itsjim, radarlady

    from places other than the centralized office and flex time is getting to be the norm.
    Medical Interns and Associate Lawyers have always been overworked, that's part of their culture or maybe initiation is a better term. I have heard many a Doctor speak proudly of his or her hours worked during their internship.
    On the other hand, if you're working long hours out of fear and you don't enjoy what you are doing, start looking around for another line of work.

    "If you tell the truth, you won't have to remember anything", Mark Twain

    by Cruzankenny on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 05:35:56 AM PST

  •  Is this just for tech workers? What about (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    itsjim, radarlady

    people whose wages are so low that they must hold two or more jobs?

    "The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" ~Orwell, "1984"

    by Lily O Lady on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 05:59:32 AM PST

    •  I know that the business analysts, compliance (5+ / 0-)

      managers, etc are all expected to be available all the time where I work.  My sister is a senior accountant/financial analyst for a company and I know she puts in unreal hours, particularly at quarter ends.  At where I work, the customer service, janitorial and 'security' staff are generally hourly and their time is watched pretty closely.

      Now for the people that are stuck in low wage jobs.  They're probably having to work lots of hours just to get enough money to 'live'.

  •  Welcome to My World That Was (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    itsjim, entrelac, greengemini, radarlady

    Particularly the It's All Top Priority, All the Time management.

    My former colleague and I spent perhaps more time than we should have venting repeatedly about the irony that in a world where everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

  •  Overtime exempt salary can cause this too (6+ / 0-)

    My position is classed as "non-exempt" - I have to be paid overtime if I work over 40 hours.  So I only work late when necessary, which usually piles up another 5-10 hours during very busy weeks.  I've worked in places that REALLY did not want you working overtime, since that time is 1.5 hours of your normal pay.

    My poor boss is exempt from overtime.  She works 10-12 hour days some days.  When I logged into work this morning, I saw she was last online 8 hours previously. Burning the candle at both ends. Poor thing.

    The Cake is a lie. In Pie there is Truth. ~ Fordmandalay

    by catwho on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 06:41:37 AM PST

  •  Pretty sure that anyone who takes (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    itsjim, FG

    the time out of working to respond to this diary almost by definition IS NOT "binge working" . ..

  •  Glad this was brought up. (5+ / 0-)

    Speaking as a middle manager in a large multinational corporation, I am not jumping as high as possible to impress my boss. I am doing it to keep my fucking job. This is because performance is measured by how well we meet (exceed) our objectives. Our objectives are impossible to meet without a significant investment of what used to be called personal time. While there are some who may be doing it to get ahead, many like me are doing it because we know that there are plenty of people standing by to take our jobs should we no longer want them.

    Abuse of workers is rampant in this country. It is not limited to hourly workers. I am a salaried worker and it manifests itself in many ways. There is no start time or quitting time. I have stuff pop onto my calendar at all hours of the day. I can't count how many times people have scheduled meetings at noon. When I question it they say, "that's the only opening I saw on your calendar." Yeah, asshole. It's open because that's when normal people eat lunch! Now I block 15 minutes every day to choke down a sandwich.

    Try taking a vacation, or even a day off. My phone doesn't stop ringing. If I don't respond to a voice mail or email, I get escalated on.

    "Sorry that you have been in line for an hour to take your kids on Space Mountain, but this is important!"

    Okay, is somebody dying?

    "No, I need the phone number of that guy who has that thing."

    Are you fucking kidding me? Have you tried looking him up in the corporate directory?

    "No, I figured this would be quicker."

    This kind of shit happens All. The. Time.

    My boss is actually a pretty good guy. But he is Lumbergh. So, I have to be Lumbergh. Hell, we're all Lumbergh.

    Sorry for the rant. I'm just so tired of the missed meals, the missed little league games, and the fact that I owe my soul to the company sto. I could go on and on, but I have to get my DRs on a call to talk about the importance of having a balance between work and home life.

    I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!

    by itsjim on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 07:19:56 AM PST

  •  Salaried workers working in excess (6+ / 0-)

    has become a new sickness in the corporate world.  You're salaried at an assumption of 40 hours a week; but workers are often putting in 60, 80 hours a week and find themselves on call at all hours.

    This is especially true in 'non-managing managers'.   That is, someone named a manager but a department of no or one employee (themselves).  Think:  Information Technology, Accounting, Engineering.

    These folks can find themselves racking up immense hours, and indications that they need to slow up are not met well.  

    This behavior allows employers to hire fewer people - they can just work the ones they have harder.   One person finds themselves doing jobs that would generally employ two or three people.

    It's a sickness.  It's also what happens when the concept of unions and fair employee rights are not allowed.

    Gandhi's Seven Sins: Wealth without work; Pleasure without conscience; Knowledge without character; Commerce without morality; Science without humanity; Worship without sacrifice; Politics without principle

    by Chris Reeves on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 07:53:54 AM PST

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