Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

Work-life balance

Are we there yet?
This is the story of Kamei Shuji. In 1987, the world was young and so was our hero, Kamei. He was ambitious and hardworking; the two qualities that projected a bright future for him.

Upon his university graduation, he joined the Osaka branch of Ace Securities. He was assigned to outdoor sales. The scheduled hours at Ace were 8.40 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday. For Kamei, whose job profile was to pioneer the arduous task of new individual accounts by cold-calling, these hours were insufficient. He thus ended up working from 6.50 am to 10 pm, in accordance with a timetable titled ‘One day for Mr Kamei’, which the company distributed to incoming cohorts of salesmen.

‘One Day for Mr Kamei’ detailed a continuous stream of activities including writing private, trust-building letters to clients, creating a ‘newspaper’ about new investment opportunities to be sent to established customers, and making more than 200 telephone cold calls to drum up new leads. The timetable also showed sales meetings, in-person calls on nearby clients and prospective clients, deliveries of stock certificates, collection of payments and recordkeeping tasks. All items were scheduled as blocks of activity. There were no scheduled breaks or rest periods.

Kamei took to the job at ease working around the clock, all days of the week, putting in a whopping 90-hour week. Coupled with the Japanese stock market boom of the 1980s, he turned into a Midas with the golden touch. His company applauded him for his superhuman stamina and spoke of him as an ideal employee in the company’s newsletters. It was not long after that, in a rare break from Japanese protocol, Kamei was directed to train senior colleagues in the art of salesmanship. 

The going was good for the star salesman, until the Japan’s stock bubble burst following the 1990 Gulf War. This forced Kamei to work even longer hours to pick up the slack, until on that fateful day in October 1990. During a weekend sales seminar with co-workers at a resort hotel, the skilled salesman collapsed and died of a massive heart attack. He was just 26 years old.

Kamei’s shocking death rocked the nation. Simultaneously, more such deaths caused due to overwork and exhaustion began to surface. Soon, the term “Karoshi” meaning “death by overwork” became a familiar word all over Japan. After much study and analysis, it was proved that Karoshi was the result of long working hours, intensified workloads associated with industrial rationalisation and a lack of worker control over the work environment. Karoshi was rightly condemned and the work-till-you-drop culture discouraged. Yet, today, Karoshi is not just a Japanese term for a local phenomenon, but a worldwide epidemic killing several healthy men in the prime of their lives and careers as a direct consequence of overwork and living lopsided lives; lives with no work-life balance.

Stark contrasts

The flame of the forest glistened to the first rays of the sun that hit a typical growing urban city on a bright Sunday morning. The park, dotted with fallen flowers and strewn with dry leaves, had people with their little children walking to the cadence of the gentle breeze from the swaying branches of the trees. While the fathers and mothers walked around in no particular pace to stretch their limbs after feeling rested from a good night’s sleep, their young children took a hop-skip-and jump alongside, reciting rhymes and narrating children’s fables.

These were not necessarily prosperous times, but happy times. Most people in the area were neither celebrities nor those with any lofty idea of aspiring to be one, but they were people significant to their families, friends and colleagues. They were satisfied people, content with life and work. They were sensible people, receptive to the needs of their body, mind and soul. They were people who knew how to work and when to rest. They were people who valued time, yet understood that they had a lifetime to enjoy the journey called life and not to rush through it in foolish frenzy.

They were the people of yesteryears. They belonged to that far-away era before the work-dominated, fast-paced, consumer-rich, data-drenched, widget-filled, ambition-crazy, money-minded and time-driven age. All these people are perhaps now obscured in the evening of their lives and on first blush appear prosaic and unimpressive. But those who know such people will tell you that in their old age they are a contented lot with that supreme fulfilment of having done it all — worked and lived in balance.

Let us move the clock to present times. In stark contrast, what do we have today? The working executives who will run aero-bridges hopping between flights for business deals, blabbing into their cell phones, working out numbers for their next sales targets, rehearsing their lines for upcoming meetings, finalising contracts, jamming multiple tasks at one go, squeezing extra agendas to their already-choked calendar. Dawn to dusk they are driven by objectives, goals, forecasts; ways to improve at work, forge ahead, beat the rest, do more, move swifter in their jobs and act smarter than anyone else does. For them, like the unfortunate young Kamei, life is all about their work.

Tipping point

The advent of the Industrial Revolution that occurred in the late-18th and early-19th centuries in Britain, the US and Western Europe became the defining moment of a new way of working and living in these nations. Gradually the shift from agrarian economy to industrial economy spread to other nations of the world, and with it the working culture and lifestyles of men changed dramatically. Concepts such as ‘Time is money’, ‘Maximisation of the factors of production’, ‘Increased revenue’, ‘Cut-throat competition’, ‘Profit maximisation’ and ‘Economies of large scale production’ soon became buzzwords and drove every nation to new levels of production and work. Industries began to work round the clock with employees working multiple shifts. Wage and salary policies were drawn to compensate productivity. ‘Overtime’ work was no longer a burden, rather, an incentive to do more work. For, more work resulted in more income. More income meant more spending power. More spending power meant a better lifestyle. Better lifestyle spelt a prominent position in society.

Work thus came to consume man. The tipping point in work culture, however, was yet to be reached as the dichotomy of work and leisure was still possible and practised. With the arrival of the Internet and the World Wide Web, people around the world saw the ultimate turning point in the history of man’s work life. As the world shrunk, time differences became irrelevant, the business world expanded and man began to spread his tentacles far and wide. An avalanche of opportunities opened up. Work grew at an exponential rate. A huge demand for jobs opened up. With a computer and 24/7 connectivity,, men could now work any time, from anywhere, and for any employer. This opening up of job market met the endless hunger of citizens of liberalised economies to have more purchasing power to buy all that it took to live the good life.

Work was thus sought and embraced. Not in the fashion earlier generations did, rather in the same manner that a religious person would seek God. Every waking hour of his day, man’s life revolved around his work. He rationalised that putting in long hours and doing more work would fetch him rewards that would take care of life’s myriad needs. Today, an average man spends 60 hours a week at his work, not counting the conference calls he takes on his smart phone during his long commute to work, the emails and faxes he attends to from his home office, the official breakfast, lunch and dinner he has discussing legal matters and sundry other loose ends of his job he takes care of when not at his desk working.

While it is true that work is needed for men to lead useful and ennobled lives, the question emerges, what is life really meant for? What about the other equally important facets of life such as family, friends, spirituality, charity, hobbies and leisure? What about the small but priceless pleasures in life like taking kids to school and smelling the roses? Does man any longer care for these treasures of life?

In his book, When all you’ve ever wanted isn’t enough, America’s bestselling author, Harold Kushner, begins the opening chapter with these pertinent observations: “Ask the average person which is more important to him — making money or being devoted to his family? — and virtually every one will answer “family” without hesitation. But, watch how the average person actually lives out his life. See where he really invests his time and energy, and he will give away the fact that he does not really live by what he says he believes. He has let himself be persuaded that if he leaves for work earlier in the morning and comes home more tired at night, he is proving how devoted he is to his family by expending himself to provide them with all the things they have seen advertised.”

Kushner hit the nail on the head! No doubt, work is an essential and inseparable part of a man’s life. Even so, to let work take over our lives is not only a folly, but detrimental to our well-being and that of our families. There are other vital elements of life that need one’s time and attention. By overworking himself and paying scant importance to the other areas of life outside work, man is doing a great disservice to his family besides himself.

Living in the tempo giusto

Work and the rewards that come with it are good for us and our families only to the extent that it enhances all the elements of our lives. Bringing work-life balance to living in one way or the other is all about finding the balance, that right tempo at which our inner yearning for a fulfilled life meets the outer demands of life.

Racing through life unceasingly, with an intensity to reach a perpetual crescendo, is bound to let the song of life go out of tempo. As Thomas Merton observed, “Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.” This order, rhythm and harmony can be achieved only when our lives are equally balanced with work and play.

Hard work is not bad, but pushing work to obsessive levels leads to unhealthy stress and leaves us with no time for leisure. And it is what we do in our free time that really shapes our perspectives. “It is in his pleasure that a man really lives,” said Agnes Repplier, an American essayist.

Free time opens the door to a world outside our jobs. It enables us to explore our deeper talents and bents. When we feel less pressurised due to less work, it makes us serene. It changes our disposition towards our family and friends to whom we owe our attention. With free time, parents become better guardians to their children. Children who see their parents relaxed and unhurried develop a deeper bond with them. Where life is not a race against time for most part, it makes us better citizens and tolerant human beings. 

Work-life balance is thus a very relevant answer to man’s eternal quest for a meaningful life. Leaping on the bandwagon to strike the balance between a career with its satisfaction of creativity and financial reward, and family life with its reward of love and service is the need of the hour for all in general, and workaholics in particular. So long as man is consumed by work, he is not likely to view life in a balanced and holistic manner.

As an old Yiddish saying goes, “To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.” To those who will see nothing beyond their work, their whole world is restricted to the realm of their work. And there can be no meaning to such a life.
A meaningful life, on the other hand, is one, as author Jonathan Lockwood Huie put it, “That balances work with family, serious with playful, adventure with serenity. To imagine a life in balance, visualise an old-fashioned balance scale, with opposites weighed against each other. When living a life in balance, one indulges in the occasional hot fudge sundae, but balanced with a few bowls of oatmeal and small portions.

The occasional hard run balanced with an afternoon sprawled in front of the television football game. An afternoon at the bungee-jump or zip-line balanced with time drifting on a placid lake. Rather than the constant grayness of moderation, a life in balance has points of interest and variability.”
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