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A Kick in the Career: Amazing True Stories of Death by Overtime

Posted: 07/22/08 12:15 PM ET

Some guy in Japan just bought the farm by working too hard. You heard right. He was 45, the lead engineer for a Toyota hybrid car division. While he was helping us reduce our dependence on oil, the poor guy ran out of gas. And he didn't even live as long as some of our aging rock stars. You know the economy's in bad shape when an auto worker doesn't last as long as Keith Richards. Prior to his death this dedicated worker had been averaging over 80 hours of overtime per month. Which I guess should now be referred to as " six feet undertime."

The amazing thing is that his dying from too much work was not just an opinion, but an official ruling handed down by the Japanese Labor Bureau Aichi. And recently, they've ruled similarly in other cases. Apparently, working insanely punishing hours to the point of kicking the bucket is becoming quite popular in Japan. I wonder if guys in Tokyo are placing bets over a beer. First guy: "I'll be dead by the weekend." Second guy: "Oh, yeah? I'll bet you two hundred yen I won't see tomorrow." First guy: "Hey, that's not fair! You've got the graveyard shift!" The worst part is, if you die first and win the bet, how do you collect? The problem has become so widespread that the Japanese even have a word, "karoshi," which means "death from overwork." Not to be confused with "karaoke," which means "death by plunging a cocktail umbrella into your carotid artery after listening to your best friend sing 'My Way' off-key for nine straight hours."

If this story, which happens to be from the Far East, does not resonate with you here in the West, then either you need to start working harder or maybe you're already dead. News flash: we work too hard in this country, too. We have long been in denial about our capacity for pounding the keyboards of our Blackberries until the letters and numbers are worn off. We know it's time to get a new one when our text messages asking a friend to meet us at Starbucks are so unintelligible they look like a hieroglyphic missive sent from Cairo to Rome by carrier snake. And corporations are already aggravated enough shelling out for maternity leave and on-site day care, imagine how furious they'll be when they have to start paying death benefits to the families of deceased workaholics. I don't think an angry widow will be happy with the "My Husband Bought It At His Job And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt" consolation prize.

All the more reason to kill the very concept of death from overwork in its tracks before it can make it into Western society.

Corporations can start including the virtues of death in their mission statement.

Our goal is to combine superlative customer service with extraordinarily high product quality and at least nine employee deaths per quarter. We stand behind our company motto: "Here Today -- With A 2.8 Percent Chance of Not Making It Till Tomorrow."

Shareholder meetings will provide another opportunity to get people used to new corporate language:

"Ladies and gentlemen, in order to help launch our new product line on time and under-budget, over 300 people died horrible, stress-related deaths. 299 of them did so willingly; and that's just the kind of commitment we make here at Bed, Bath & The Great Beyond. Oh, and please go out the back way: the families of the people who croaked are in the lobby, menacing our receptionist with crudely-made street weaponry."

Soon, just to survive, employees will create the illusion of overworking. They'll stack their desks with paperwork, stay after hours and wear the same clothing for days, stinking up the office with their apparent dedication through lack of personal hygiene, all in the hopes of being recognized simply for their willingness to die on the job. People will pretend to have very urgent phone conversations in hushed tones when their bosses walk by, to give the impression that the company is their number one priority. "Sweetheart, I know our wedding is in fifteen minutes, and I appreciate that you've invited over 700 people and that your parents, who are paying for all this, have flown in from the Ukraine and have endured being held for over seven hours at the airport and cavity-searched by Homeland Security, but I promised our office manager I 'd go to Office Depot and pick up some toner and a 36 by 40 inch polyurethane mat for his swivel chair, so it doesn't encounter carpet resistance when he pushes it under his desk."

We can blame the corporations all we want, and certainly they need to take responsibility for how they wrap the bottom line around our necks. But so many of us overwork to avoid personal lives that we have allowed to become unmanageable. I'm fairly confident that work will never kill me, because I make sure to spend a lot of time around a wife who's always there for me, and two kids who love me no matter what. So you see, I know I won't get caught up in a horrible cycle of work obsession to the point of risking my life. And why? Because my entire family has been trained on, and are more than capable of using, my high-tech, state-of-the-art portable defibrillator. I'm ready for the day when my family is gathered around me at the breakfast table and my wife is rubbing two stainless steel paddles together screaming, " CLEAR!" and I'm thinking, " As soon as I'm done with this heart attack, I've got to get back to work." Norman Rockwell would be proud.