A man sitting as he holds a red card with an unhappy face in front of his head. On the right hand side, the word “Work” appears 4 times.

Karoshi! Your job can kill you! Here’s how to fix it.

Tips that can help you to tame an out of control job.

K, so the headline might be a little melodramatic, but in Japan it happened so often that they invented a word for it in the 1970s; Karoshi literally means “overwork death” and normally manifested itself as a heart attack or stroke caused by stress and eating inadequately. Now, you might not be quite at that stage, but no job is worth damaging your health for and, if you feel it is, you need to do something about it.

We’ve all seen them, perhaps some of us recognise it in ourselves. You know, those incredibly busy people that you find in any workplace. The ones who are always stressed, always rushing (often running), never got enough time to do everything and, most interestingly, often thought as indispensable to the organisation. That’s right, we’ve all met the busiest person in the office.

Often the busiest person is highly regarded by their management and respected by their peers. They often get awards and special mentions for staying late after hours to solve problems or to get through their crushing workload. No one doubts their commitment and they are the “go to” person for so many things that, when they go on holiday or are off sick, the operation struggles without them.

If you recognise some of the characteristics that I mentioned above in yourself then you have a problem that you need to deal with. Whilst it may be great to be valued and fun to be the centre of attention, you are simply stressing yourself out and probably putting your health at risk.

It’s nice to feel like you’re indispensable to the place you work. Humans thrive on being valued and this encourages us to take on more and more until we are in danger of snapping. But take a moment to think about someone who was supposedly indispensable who actually left, how long did it take for the organisation to recover? Maybe a month, maybe less. Life went on, the person was replaced, their work was shared out and the organisation survived. No matter how important you are at the moment, you can and will be replaced, and if the organisation can do that to you, why should you risk your health for them?

Remember, no one looks back on their life from their deathbed and wishes that they spent more time in the office!

So, you have a difficult, overloaded, job and need to do something about it. The sooner you face the truth, the easier it will be to restore a healthier balance to your work.

As with all difficult situations, the first step to sorting it out is to recognise that you are in a bad place and that you need to do something about it. If you recognise the symptoms above, you may find the plan below useful.

Enlist your boss

The first step is to stabilise the current situation, by drawing a circle around your current roles and responsibilities. Find a copy of your job description and then write down additional that you’re doing. It might be worth drawing a picture with your job description roles and responsibilities in a circle and the additional responsibilities around the edge.

This stage is about understanding the situation and not taking on anything else. You need to stabilise the situation in order to move on from a stable platform.

Now you have a list or picture showing the position you’re in, show it to your boss and explain that you don’t think you’re focussing enough on the core parts of your role. Get their support to take the next steps. This is important as it means that you’ve got backing for the trickier actions that are coming as you try to extricate yourself from your overworked situation.

Ringfence your job

Now, having written down your current situation, you need to defend that perimeter. When you’re asked to do something new, look at your list. If it isn’t on there, ask yourself whether you should you getting involved. Don’t take on any more tasks unless you have to. Learn to say no, or if that’s too hard, say “not now, I’m too busy.”

Handover the things that aren’t yours

Your list or diagram should now have a list of what you are contracted to do and the additional work you’ve picked up along the way. Do some of those tasks belong to other people? For example, do you write a blog for your boss, fill in the weekly report for the whole team or maintain the holiday spreadsheet? All of these kinds of task may be candidates for returning to their rightful owner or sharing between team members.

Improve the things that are yours

The next stage in our journey is to take steps that will make the tasks that you are committed to doing less onerous and time consuming; we’ve stopped or limited the inflow of uncontrolled tasks and had a go at getting rid of things we shouldn’t be doing, now it’s time to make the existing tasks run smoothly and more efficiently. Can a task be made simpler, for example, can a weekly report be simplified (no one reads them anyway!) or can you write a short note instead of creating a slideshow to get a message across?

Take a moment to think through the tasks that you have to do regularly and try to work out ways to make them more efficient. Let’s say, for example, that you have a weekly report that you must compile, or some financial figures that have to be prepared every month. Can part of the task be automated in some way, perhaps copying figures from one sheet to another instead of transcribing? Maybe you have to do some data cleansing before you can use some figures, a bit of time spent preparing a spreadsheet that accepts the raw data you use in your reporting and prepares the report for you may pay real dividends.

Often we carry around a payload of repetitive tasks that we know could be automated or made more efficient if only we had the time to invest up-front to make them more efficient. Make a note of these tasks and pick the one that has the potential to save you some time. Now, make a guess at how much time you would need to invest to make that task more efficient. Look at your list and pick the opportunity that will pay the largest dividend for the smallest investment. Hopefully you’ve now got a task that will save you time every month in exchange for some time invested up front.

If you have the kind of runaway job that we described at the beginning of the article, you’re probably working extra hours on a regular basis, so you should earmark some of those extra hours to invest the time to make your job easier. Alternatively, skip a monthly staff briefing to find an hour you need to invest.

Reduce the dependency on you personally

Nest you need to reduce the dependency that the organisation has on you personally. It can be nice to be sought out for advice or to be the only person who is asked to do certain things and it’s only human to enjoy being valued in this way, but remember, this is the kind of thing that’s making your job impossible and means you have to work late!

You should look at whether you have opportunities to allow people to do for themselves those tasks for which they currently rely on you. The principle is the same as the high street banks have implemented over the last 20 years or so with the introduction of ATM and online banking; if the customer is able to serve themselves, then they don’t need a human to help them.

The same thing applies to you; if someone is always asking you for something, think about whether you could enable that person to get the information themselves. They will get the information faster and whenever they want it and you will no longer be involved in the process. Win win!

I saw a nice example of this in one of my jobs when someone was always being asked to deliver statistics on certain business processes on a daily basis. After about a month, the person in question made the query that she was running against the database available to the person requesting the data and saved herself a daily task that was taking about ten minutes a day and caused her to interrupt her other tasks.

If you have any subordinates who you are able to delegate tasks to, you should consider moving tasks to them. Being brutal for a moment, if they are your subordinates, then it is your right to shift tasks onto them to free up your time. This is not a time for feeling guilty about the tasks you are shifting, this about taking control of your life!

Another neat way to move people to a self-service model is to compile a “Frequently Asked Questions” list. There is a reason that FAQ pages proliferated across the internet; they work! Have a go at creating a list from memory, but if you can’t find the time to do this, it’s well worth making up the list as you go along. Just record the questions and answers as they happento compile a list, then have it ready as a handy attachment or paste it into your auto-signature.

emember, the only thing you have to so with any of these tips is to make a start! If you genuinely have a runaway job, the odds are on that any actions you take to improve the situation will make a great difference to you! Imagine, if you simply free up a small amount of time each day and don’t fill up that time with extra tasks. Heck, you might even manage to get out of work at a sensible time in the end!

Let’s recap the points in the plan I’ve outlined.

  1. Ringfence your job — Make sure that you’re not picking up more work.
  2. Get support in what you’re doing — Make sure your boss knows what you’re trying to achieve and why you’re doing it.
  3. Handover the things that aren’t yours — Get rid of any tasks that aren’t really your job.
  4. Improve the things that are yours — Work on the efficiency of what you have to so as a part of your job.
  5. Reduce the dependency on you — Let people serve themselves, train others, delegate to others and put a Frequently Asked Questions together.

You will get the most benefit from this plan if you follow it in the order stated here and attempt every step; it is genuinely designed as a plan to escape from a self-perpetuating cycle of being overworked. However, if you only implement a few of these ideas, you will begin to see benefits immediately and will have a chance of escaping the spiral of a runaway job!

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Chris Stevenson

I’m interested in lots of things and write about them. History, nature, environment, business topics, experimental stories and anything else I fancy.