Another death from digital overwork; where’s the outrage over binge working?

by Bob Sullivan on December 18, 2013 (Click to see original Tweet and responses) (Click to see original Tweet and responses)

There’s been years of media reports ringing the alarm bell about binge drinking; where’s the horror at the new epidemic of binge working?

When friends brag they are pulling all-nighters at work, please don’t laugh. Please tell them to get help. If you haven’t noticed this disturbing trend, I’ll lay it out for you: a toxic combination of digital umbilical cords, the hypnotic effects of technology, economic anxiety, and “energy” drinks is infiltrating our world with horrific consequences. It’s not just an expression any longer: we are working ourselves to death.

It’s happened again: a young person known for engergy-drink-fueled unhealthy work-life balance Tweeted she had worked for 30 hours straight, and soon after, dropped dead.  In this case, Mita Diran, an ad writer for Young and Rubican in Indonesia who often complained/bragged about long hours, dropped dead of heart failure after being awake for as long as three days.

Her last Tweet: “30 Hours of Working and still going strooong.”

Diran had worked there for less than two years, according to local media reports.

Naturally, it’s too soon to really know why Diran died, or to lay blame. But her 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 Merrill Lynch in London. He was a 21-year-old intern, and apparently desperate to prove himself worthy of a full-time job in banking. His death, barely noticed in America, led to national outcry in Britain and government review of labor regulations.

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

Four incidents around the globe do not a trend make. But then, I’d suggest we don’t wait for a 10-year longitudinal study to take seriously what we all know inside:  Work in the digital age is dangerous in a new, alarming way.

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 quaint 8 hours of rest we once longed for. 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. And it’s making us sick. A survey of medical research on overworked published in the American Journal of Epidemiology lays out the case:

*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.”

*A cross-sectional study of 248 automotive workers found an association between overtime work and impaired performance on tests of attention and executive function … For example, deterioration in cognitive performance, including impaired grammatical reasoning and alertness, has been found in post versus pretest conditions among employees working 9- to 12-hour shifts compared with a traditional 8-hour shift.”

It bears repeating: technology and energy drinks can be a toxic combination, pushing the body past healthy limits. You wouldn’t let a friend laugh about how drunk he or she is and then get behind the wheel of a car; you’d take the car keys. Next time a friend talks about working through the night, take their phone away, and tell them to take a nap.

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