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Are You 'Binge Working'? The Question Is Deadly Serious

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

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.

This phenomenon has sometimes been called “the Great Speed- Up,” as workers simply can’t seem to jump off the digital rat-wheel.

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 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.

"Organizations can develop a culture that focuses on the effort expended rather than the quality provided. I call these cultures of self-sacrifice, where employee value is measured not by how productive they are but by how much time and personal sacrifices they need to make to complete their work," he said. "In such cultures the employee who stays later is valued more even if the quality of work produced is not different from an employee who left earlier."

Working late can be a subtle, sinister test of loyalty, particularly in an economy that's still struggling to replace jobs lost during the Great Recession. It is human nature for bosses to keep asking for more work until employees cry foul; but in a tough job market, many employees feel like they can't say no.

The risks of overwork haven't been lost on organizations. Last week, in a direct reaction to Erhardt's death, Bank of America announced in an internal memo a new policy that requires analysts and associates to take off a "minimum of four weekend days off per month." It also announced that managers were to "closely monitor work volume, hours, and assignments. The Wall Street Journal reported that Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase have taken similar steps.

But as every worker knows, policies come and go – and few employees are comfortable quoting policy when a request comes from the boss.

Matos points out an irony in the age of instant communication and overwork, and in it, a possible solution. Communication about expectations is sorely lacking in most organizations, Matos says. Often, employees wrongly imagine that every e-mail, and every request, must be answered immediately -- particularly when deadlines aren't clear. Middle managers often make this mistake, too, jumping as high as possible to impress bosses up the food chain, rather than asking precisely how high they are supposed to jump. In the end, that means everything is a crisis, and everything is treated like a fire drill.

"Fear can drive people to overwork," Matos said. " Fear shuts down open and honest communication which is necessary to creating an innovative and responsive workplace."

And necessary to keep workers from falling asleep at their desks – or worse.