Tag Archives: utbränd

I did not commit Karoshi in Asia…

Reading this article on Karoshi in Japan, I come to think of one episode when working on a project in Asia. Even though I did not commit Karoshi, I surely did fit the bill of work hours. (A suicide qualifies as karoshi if the person worked more than 160 hours of overtime the last month of life.)

I was in Asia in a contract negotiation around 2004, working as a consultant at the time. It was the first time we negotiated a contract with this operator together with a new national telecom vendor. I got there in the third negotiation week, just to “finish off some add on services”, that had been thrown in more or less as a give away to sweeten the deal.

While in Germany, preparing for the negotiation, I realized a new technical condition that prevented us from using the 7 off the shelf products. We would have to build completely new software, and get nothing extra for it. I was told to hang on there in the negotiation, not give anything extra away and just clarify the customer needs.

We hade excruciatingly long negotiation days during those three weeks. Days during which the highest Asian managers appeared sleeping with their heads in hands! Remarkably enough, they noticed as soon as something needed correction, they where immediately attentive, rattling away in Japanese to the subordinates.

In the evening, I got back to our local office, and worked until far into the night with our Swedish technicians to design and calculate costs.

Getting home to the hotel in the middle of the night (or rather very early morning), I felt completely safe. The only Japanese persons out on the streets where friendly or as me, sleepily/sleeping on the way home or to work. The subway had more sleeping persons than awake ones.

Business people shaking hands, finishing up a meeting

After three weeks, we where all exhausted when the negotiations where over. We had calculated our design, test and production costs to between 15 and 20 000 man hours. The main projekt owner made my hair blow backwards as he screamed at me on the phone:

  • Are you completely insane? It is definitely impossible! 

I calmly asked him:

  • Have you calculated how much you need on the enabling exchange side? How much do you need for your customer adaptions? which rendered him speechless.

To make a long story short, they later figured out they needed way beyond 100 000 man hours to complete the specification agreed.

It was an awkward celebration dinner with the customer that night after the top managers had shaken hands on the deal agreed upon. The customer sat on a long row on one side of the table. The CEO in the middle. Us on the other side, knowing that the development costs where too high and still climbing. Our local manager in the middle and I as the only woman next to him. Toward the end of the dinner, the lights where dimmed. Three waiters entered with the delicious special extraordinary course: Three big steaming balls… It took me some time to realize it was tuna fish eyes, still more or less boiling and staring towards the ceiling! At that time, I had not yet learnt the phrase:

  • – Excuse me, my religion prohibits me from eating this. (It works wonders in every country, I promise!)

And I was sitting across from the expecting CEO, and could not make him loose face in front of a foreign woman. So I had to take something, with the eating sticks and put it into my mouth. I took some from the outside of the steaming ball, while others dove right into it. Yuccie… Wonderful culture clash. Next time I might invite them up north in Sweden and serve sour herring (surströmming)…

I have seldom worked so many hours a day for so many negotiation weeks. Still I felt that the Japanese where working even harder. And they continued to do so, day in and day out, even though they did not have a major contract negotiation.

Well, we did complete the project eventually, many manhours later, with a satisfied customer.

And no burnouts or Karoshi in the meantime.

Ending well, all is well.

My reflection on this episode in conjunction with Karoshi is the following:
When you are overworked to that degree, your logical function degrades. Your capability to estimate times, workload, risk etc. diminishes more rapidly than you are aware of.

That is why I suggest all people to learn some personal strategies to reduce stress so that you can keep your logic and creativity at best possible. And you may also see earlier need for escalation, or be able to choose other assignments or employers unless conditions change.

And for you next to the person who is working themselves clearly towards burnout or Karoshi, I repeat Martin Luther Kings words:

  • You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.
    Martin Luther King Jr. – 1929-1968, Minister and Civil Rights Leader

Perhaps the person is not ready to listen to your advice. That is perfectly understandable. But you can use I-messages to tell them what you see as consequence and how it affects yourself. For example:

  • When I notice you don´t take time to help the less experienced in the team asking for it, I am afraid the we will not be able to meet the quality goal of our total team delivery.

And you can tell them that you know of an efficient method to reduce stress (EFT) that can be used by anyone almost anywhere, even for the most hectic schedules, to take down the personal stress levels.

Have a nice weekend!

// Sara Bern