In 2013 a 31-year-old journalist in Japan just died at her desk due to heart failure. Her name was Miwa Sado and she died after logging over 150 hours of overtime in a single month. And she was not alone. In 2013 over 3,000 workers in Japan died from what they call Karoshi, or death by work. This death can happen in several ways. Typically, it is a death by completing suicide but many times it can manifest itself in other ways like heart failure, kidney failure, and chronic system failure due to malnutrition or fatigue. Recently the global pandemic has allowed the country of Japan to reimagine their famous dedication to work. The government there has explored mandating time off for overworked employees, more flexibility in the workplace, and a greater dedication to a more balanced work and life existence. Who knows how much they will be able to change this culture but the acknowledgement is important.
But Japan is not alone. While not quite as prevalent as in Japan the United States is also well known for their overtime and overworking. According to the MAXIS Global Benefits Network the average U.S. worker logs in 23 additional hours of overtime each month. This equates to about six weeks of work that mainly goes unpaid. As a higher ed professional I would guess that for many of us, especially early in our careers that 23 additional hours would be a blessing. As an early career professional, it was not unusual to log 70 or 80 hours in a week. And I was lucky. I worked in campus activities. My housing and residence life friends never left work, they lived at their jobs. And this work can take its toll. The stress, wear and tear on our brains and bodies can erode your dedication to this field and to yourself. I have seen many great professionals broken by the hours and the nature of this work.
For a long time, I really could not make a clear connection between how I was feeling and how I did my job. I did what every other professional did and powered through. I would work the ling hours, be there for my students, and feel happy I have a job. But then I sat on a dissertation that quite literally changed my life and perspective. I served on the dissertation committee for Dr. Lynell Hodge, and she presented her research on Vicarious Trauma and its impact on job satisfaction and personal wellbeing. Her dissertation was focused on Residence Life Staff, but I saw so much of my life in her work. She explained that it is beyond just the long hours, it is also what we see and do. As staff we respond to student’s overdosing on drugs, student on student violence, students who are homeless and hungry, students who have been rejected by their families, who are making sense of the world, who are worried about their futures be it a job or relationships. The list is endless. And this is day in and day out. I have lost count at the number of students I have held in my arms while they cried about something and we worked out their trauma.
And it takes a toll. In 2019, Gregory Ellis, the Executive Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Pennsylvania took his own life. Prior to his death he had complained about the stress and demands of his job and the worries he had for his students. Prior to reading his story I am personally aware of two other student affairs professionals who have taken their lives. This is in addition to the dozens and dozens of peers who have left the field just because it was taking a toll on their lives. Be it the long hours, the constant pressure to be perfect, the stakes being so high. This work is HARD AS HELL. I have so many friends who have been the subject of lawsuits against the universities they work for simply because they were doing their best, but the result was not good. Think housing staff who missed a student in crisis who killed themselves, a staff person who did not identify a student who was being hazed or sexually harassed. When we are tired and burned out me miss things.
In 2019, Inside Higher Ed ran a piece on the Crisis-Industrial Complex in higher education. This is the idea that every task has to reach crisis mode to get the oxygen it needs to be addressed. From a free In In 2019 there was an article posted on the Inside Higher Ed site and it focused on what is called the Higher Education Crisis Industrial Complex. In order for anything to get the oxygen it needs to survive the issue needs to be a crisis that takes 1A status. From a free speech crisis, to a financial crisis, to a homeless student crisis, to a student employability crisis, and now a Pandemic. It feels like we live our lives with the dial turned to 11. And as a higher ed leader I find myself falling for this crisis mode all of the time and then I do the thing I shouldn’t and that is I project down to others in my orbit. From there we all take on the stress and urgency of now that it seems like comes at us every single day.
Look, this is supposed to be the moment where I offer some sort of deep thought about how to solve this and list out some ways to combat this toxic mix of hours served and constant crisis. But I really don’t have the answers. But here is what I did learn from Dr. Hodge and what I do as much as possible. I have incorporated four practices that I think are helping:
- Everyday, before I go home, I try to take a moment for myself. I build in time to let the day decompress before I get home. Most of the time I sit on the patio at my local World of Beer, and I enjoy a pint or a diet coke and allow my day to end. While I cannot do that every day, I try to most days to allow a buffer between my lives.
- I am no longer afraid to admit I am not qualified to do something. Often, we are asked to be mental health professionals, negotiators, experts in contract or labor law, risk management experts, and so on. I now admit that I just don’t have that expertise and find people who do to help me make better decisions. I have found the people who’s job it is to manage that part of campus is grateful you did not just try to wing it.
- I just admit on most things a B is a good grade. My doctor once said that he was not looking for students to get straight As with their health. He is looking for solid B students so eat right 80% of the time, exercise 80% of the week’s days and you will see great results. And I often look at my work and if it is a solid B then I am okay with this. Now, are there other projects that require an A? Sure, and I work to identify those, but I’m good with a B.
- I no longer believe I will be the man who solves or saves higher ed. I love my job. I work hard at it. I also know that I am only one person. State budgets will be what they are, critics will do what they do, and students are gonna student. So I control what I can. Offer advice and expertise when appropriate, and just try to put in a solid day’s effort. I am 48 years old. In about 20 years, I am going to be in retirement. Higher ed will live on for centuries after I am gone so to feel I am the Alpha and the Omega of this field is only an exercise in futility.
And finally, and this is the most important thing. If I feel tired, overwhelmed, sad, frustrated, scared, or even overjoyed and happy, I tell someone. I share my feelings and I am honest with people my guess is most people who die from Karoshi were living in anguish and silence and told no one about their pain. As higher ed pros we get to do great things but we also have to see some horrible things. We need to admit when it is too much. So take a day, see a therapist, talk to a friend, start a blog. Find a way to detox your life and do good things. Your students will appreciate you for it and I believe you will be better at work and at life.