Stress and Sleeplessness are Surprisingly Lethal

October 20, 2018

It’s not all fun and video games. In advance of Red Dead Redemption 2, set to debut later this month, members of the team told Vulture they were logging 100 hour weeks to deliver the long-awaited game to fans on deadline. Originally framed as a boast, the familiar claim soon generated backlash, and brought to the surface a question usually carefully repressed: How much work can kill you?

Americans love to labor. While full-time employment is characterized as a 40 hour work week, the average employee actually spends 47 hours at work each week, compared to 35 in Germany or Sweden. The United States is also rare among wealthy nations in that it does not guarantee paid vacation. And those working for companies that do offer paid vacation don’t even take it; 54 percent of worker bees squander half of their vacation days each year.

This approach to work is reinforced in popular culture. Ads for Fiverr, which bills itself as an “online marketplace for freelance services,” celebrate people whose “drug of choice” is “sleep deprivation”. Many executives perpetuate the myth that they need only 4 hours of sleep to function at the highest levels. And Lyft’s PR team was “excited” to turn the story of a woman who continued driving passengers while in the depths of labor into a shining example of the success of the gig economy.

This culture and economic structure has serious consequences—physical ones. In his recent book Dying for a Paycheck, Stanford University organizational behavior professor Jeffrey Pfeffer argues that some 150,000 deaths in the United States each year, and as many as 1 million in China, can be attributed to overwork. Sedentary lifestyles, sleeplessness, and stress—all provoked by damaging work cultures and economic anxieties—are partly to blame.

Historically, jobs killed with a bang or a flash. Before World War II, most Americans worked outdoors or in factories, where they sparred with felled trees or building-sized printing machines. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, was formed to regulate exactly these physically dangers, and they’ve done a great job. Workplace injuries, at least when defined in these terms, have fallen dramatically.

But our bodies are now wrecked in slower and more secretive ways. We’ve long known, for example, that the blue light in our computer screens can cause eye damage, but it’s only recently that researchers have shown the process by which the wavelength stimulates toxic chemical reactions on the surface of our eyeballs—reactions that could lead to diseases like macular degeneration.

We’re also aware that sitting down for hours on end causes muscle strains and repetitive stress injuries. But it’s increasingly clear sedentary lifestyles really can kill. In 2017, researchers found that the average worker was inactive 12.3 hours a day. Worse still, the Guardian reported, the researchers found that those “who were sedentary for more than 13 hours a day were twice as likely to die prematurely as those who were inactive for 11.5 hours.”

Like a falling log or a hungry conveyor belt, the consequences of sleeplessness are obvious—especially when that deprivation is severe. Japan has become famous in English language news for a phenomenon called “karoshi,” the sudden deaths of ostensibly healthy people from periods of intense, unbroken work. The concept stretches back to the 1980s, but recent cases include a 31-year-old woman who died after working 159 hours of overtime in one month.

Of course, “karoshi” is not limited to Japan’s borders; wherever people are overworking, it looms. In London in 2013, for example, an intern at Bank of America died after reportedly working for 72 hours straight. The Red Dead Redemption II crew appears to be in good health, but their purported workflow certainly puts them in karoshi territory. (History suggests their players will also be at a similar risk, as elite gamers have died from playing days or even weeks straight.)

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