Do you work to live — or live to work? Karoshi is crazy!

By Caitlin Kelly

Did you hear about the young woman, Mita Diran, who died of overwork recently after tweeting about her long hours — 30 hours without a break?

And here’s the 24-year-old who died the same way.


I have four words for this, and they’re not: Rock on, you over-achievers!

Rather: Are you fucking kidding me?

And here’s a whiny, tedious rant at Slate by a woman who’s shocked — shocked! — to find that French workers get subsidized meals from their employers and are treated with a great deal more respect than they are in the U.S.

Duh. Americans are simply nuts about work. They go onandonandonandonandonandon about how busy they are and how needed they are and how many things they just added to their to-do list.

As if this makes them more….something.

Tired, probably.

Here’s a list of 10 reasons — written by a local colleague and former board member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors — why you might consider taking a break.

They include:

1. Quantity kills quality.

You want to be excellent at what you do. But the more tasks you take on, the smaller your chance of doing an excellent job at any of them.

2. Sleep matters.

“The way to a more productive, more inspired, more joyful life is getting enough sleep,” Arianna Huffington said in a 2011 TED talk. She would know. She fainted from exhaustion and broke her cheekbone and is now something of a sleep evangelist. “I was recently having dinner with a guy who bragged that he’d gotten only four hours’ sleep the night before,” she continued. She considered retorting: “If you had gotten five, this dinner would have been a lot more interesting.”

3. You suck when it counts.

You’ll be bad at generating new ideas, finding creative solutions to problems, and worst of all you’ll suck at listening attentively to the people around you. That disrespects them and wastes their time as well as yours.

4. Your mood is a buzzkill.

The kind of irritability and impatience that goes with being overworked and behind schedule will cast a black cloud over the people around you both at work and at home. If you’re an employee, it will damage your career. If you’re a small business owner, it will harm your business.

5. Your judgment is impaired.

The research is conclusive: sleep deprivation impairs decision-making. As a leader, poor judgment is something you can’t afford. Crossing some tasks off your to-do list, handing them to someone else, or finishing some things late is well worth it if it means you bring your full concentration and intelligence to the tough decisions your job requires.

Readers of this blog know I work my ass off. But they also know how much I deeply cherish balance in my life.


I bitch about being broke a lot. Money isn’t great right now at our house, but we’ll be fine.

The truth is this: I could work twice as many hours and, probably, double my income.

At what cost?

On Monday this week, I revised a story for five hours’ straight. The rest of the week was spent emailing pitches and checking in with long-time clients to see where we are and lining up details for a crazy foreign trip I’ll be making at the end of March for work. In other words, I’ve been plenty busy.

Yesterday — yes, the hell with it — I devoted to all the things that actually make me happy, no matter how retro or silly or low-value they may sound to some people:

ironing, tidying the linen closet, a manicure, making cranberry bread, making dal for an Indian food feast, listening to CDs, (instead of the radio, and talk shows because I’ll learn something), emailing a distant friend who’s not feeling very well, chatting with pals on Facebook and deciding not to make soup. Even my non-work days have limits!

That filled up most of the day.

I spoke to my husband, as is typical for us, twice. We never let a day go by — and he has six meetings every day at his busy newspaper job — without one to three brief phone calls to say hello and trade some news. He’s my husband. I want to talk to him. When he comes home in the evening, the computer is off (except for blogging!) and we talk to one another, a lot.

Minda, who wrote the piece above, has no children, like me. She confesses in her story that her husband had to get assertive about wanting more of her attention, and she says she works most weekends.

Nope. Not for me.

I could make a lot more money. I have. Seven years ago, I made twice as much. In 1996, I made twice as much.

It didn’t make me twice as happy.

I know that some of you are desperate to get a job, and a well-paid job, so someone who isn’t dying to work all the time probably seems lazy to you.

Uh, no.

What I am is someone who knows her priorities: sleep, (8-10 hours every night, without fail), friendships, uninterrupted time with my husband, travel, preparing decent food for us and our friends, a clean and tidy home. I take dance class 2-3 times a week and try to work out in other ways as well.

I’ve learned my limits the hard way.

On March 17, 2007, I begged Jose to rush me to our local hospital, in pain that even laying the seatbelt across my chest was agony. I had no idea what was wrong with me, but something sure was — a 104 degree temperature and pneumonia. That meant three days in the hospital on an IV and a full month to regain my strength.

Like many people, especially freelancers and the self-employed who have no paid sick days, I kept on working while ill.

Never again.


Yes, I need to make money. And I need to bump it up by probably 50 percent this year (sigh) to make a significant difference to our quality of life.

How about you?

Do you work to live, or live to work?

42 thoughts on “Do you work to live — or live to work? Karoshi is crazy!

  1. In my twenties, I usually worked two, but sometimes three jobs. Yes, mostly for wanting more money, but also because something would pique my interest and I’d get sucked in. Work ethics are important. I value a day spent working well.
    There is absolutely a correlation between how much (time) a job requires and how quickly I burn out. I am a type-A and very vivacious, but still…
    Also a direct correlation between how bad the thing is you do vs how much you get paid. Ex: teaching pays much less than writing for a law firm, but you get to keep your soul intact while teaching.
    Then I married a man with children (full-time) and I quickly realized that teaching kindergarten all day and going home to a four and six year old was way too much for me.
    I became a supermom, only to find out that those don’t exist, which led to anxiety disorder. I was in my mid-thirties when I took a part-time teaching job again, before I realized that the trade-off of more money actually meant a much less happier marriage and a much more tired mother. It was noticeable immediately, but I kept thinking we’d find our balance. Two months later, I interviewed my replacement candidates.
    In life, there are trade-offs. I’d rather live a poorer life with all my ducks in a row than to have plenty of money and a chaotic home life.
    So yes, balance is something I’ve sought for for a very long time. I work more at home than I did at work, but my work here benefits all of us, and saves money.
    I live to live 🙂

    1. Thanks for weighing in…and sharing this…It’s exactly the sort of calculation I think many of us end up making. Jose came home tonight to a VERY good dinner and a tidy home and a relaxed and happy me…how do you put a price on that? Versus the usual work-chase dramas. Even one day away from it is helpful for me.

      Money buys stuff we need (certainly a retirement!) but so much of the stuff ends up owning us.

  2. I have a really hard time understanding the emphasis on working beyond a reasonable degree. It seems to come from a desire to be tough, with the assumption being that toughness makes you a better person. I do work hard, but it’s in the service of goals I find worthwhile and I do try to maintain the basics–especially sleep, because lack of sleep just makes you stupid. I can also understand 24 year old’s working themselves to death: most of us don’t have a lot of sense in our early 20s, and sometimes do foolish things because of that. It’s harder for me to fathom someone older than that not having clued in to the idea that over-work is counter-productive.

  3. This post resonates strongly with me.

    I’ve a little one year old daughter now, and for most of last year I worked the bare minimum, at t serious cost financially, but the whole time I was home with my wife and daughter helping out and watching her grow. It was probably the best time of my life.

    However from next year it will have to change as we are leaving Korea and moving back to Ireland and it’s unlikely we’ll have the same safety net we have here, not that we wont have a safety net. I know plenty of guys exactly like me who work their asses off, the most crucifying being 6am starts (yeah late for some) and teaching all day and even on the weekends.

    To conclude I should add that I’m now in Thailand on a two month holiday with my family (we did two months in Ireland during the summer). If you saw how much I earned you’d wonder how we managed. And the answer is ‘we make it manage’ because what’s the point in not.

    1. Thanks for sharing — and good to hear from you again! I love that you chose that priority, as it will never come again.

      I know how you’ve managed — you set what’s important and go from that premise. We do that. Have a great holiday…I loved my time in Thailand!

      1. Well that’s exactly our thinking. We won’t have an opportunity like this again, at least not until we’re older and richer. Of course setting and reaching the important goals are two different things altogether. and this kind of ‘inactivity’ is not as popular with everyone. Some of my brothers, including one who is a chef and has worked in kitchens since he was 16, trying to accuse me of being lazy…but I try to get them to see my side of the story. My chef brother often grits his teeth in agreement.

        Yes, I’ve been busy obviously, and blog reading has been suffering from being just anothe email in my inbox. I’m learning new skills and trying to focus on the futuer. Trying being the operative word.

      2. I think “lazy” is in the eye of the beholder. I feel lazy (not making more $$$) but I know how tired I am and how hard I already work, anyone who judges me can piss off…:-)

        Everyone makes their own life, and their own choices…I know many people focus all their energy on work because they can so easily avoid emotional intimacy as a result, so I don’t worship at the shrine of WORK. I’ve seen this firsthand.

  4. Avery

    I understand about your money issues because I have had them myself. If you want, I can put in a good word for you with the writing company that employs me. You have a blog and all, they will likely give you a higher hourly rate.

  5. Great post! And good for you for making family time and personal time your priority.

    You are so right, many Americans do work a lot and are way too busy. I used to be this way, too! I quit my job end of 2011 to have another baby and stay home with my children. Now, I home educate my children and I wouldn’t change anything! BUT before Christmastime I realized I got caught up with being way too busy with the logistics of home education, so now I’m taking a more relaxed approach.

    1. “Busy” makes people feel VERY important. But mostly it’s exhausting. I prefer to be busy with personal projects and plans, not just running in circles all day long for more $$ and prestige. I’ve had a great career and am not resting, but don’t have the URGENCY one has in their 20s or 30s anymore.

    1. No. But my standard hourly rate is $150-200. I’m not sure where you live, or your age — we live in a very costly area and are getting close to retirement so making the most possible is urgent for us right now.

  6. I think we get caught up in a kind of macho mechanistic approach to our work. We want to seem as binary and cold as the machines that calculate our tax returns. Margaret Thatcher used to boast about how little sleep she required and she was responsible for an entire country – that is no example to set.

    1. So true. Thanks for commenting!

      When I worked retail, PT, I referred to it — then as now — as “industrial” — in that they truly treat workers (with stunning lack of interest in their humanity) as machines; they refer to workers as (keck) human capital. What a revealing phrase that is…I thought “labor” was bad enough.

      I found it really demoralizing and depressing and was grateful I could flee back to journalism. It’s hard work, but working on my own means I set my own pace and style.

  7. this is such a wonderful post, caitlin. i love the day you had and especially that you didn’t feel you needed to apologize for any of it. it seems to be the mindset these days, that if you take time just do things that you enjoy or bring you peace and contentment, you are somehow ‘wasting your time,’ and could be doing something much more productive. this is a convoluted concept in my eyes, for what could you do that would be more productive than making sure you are taken care of? then you are ready to go out and be productive in the larger world. as for work, i absolutely love what i do, but i work to live, not live to work at all. as you know, i made a life change at 40, even though i loved what i did then as well, but i realized that time was so much more important to me than money.

    1. Thanks!

      I know, of all people, you get it.

      The joy of getting older (not there are many!) is not giving a shit really what anyone else says or thinks about my choices. As long as my husband and my physician and my accountant are happy (i.e. my emotional, financial and physical health are in order), who cares what others think? Today was also a very slow day. I was REALLY tired and took it easy. It included work, of course, but not 8 hrs’ worth — maybe three.

    1. That’s not at all how it works. In the U.S. and Canada, writers or journalism are paid by the word — at $1/wd for 1,000 words you earn $1,000 (and have to include all the time for research, reporting, interviews, writing and revision.) If you want to make $100/hour, for example, you have to be able to do the whole thing in 10 hours. The more time you spend, the lower your hourly fee gets. Some people are unable work quickly and end up making very little per hour as a result.

  8. Thanks for blogging about this! It seems to have resonated for a lot of people, which I guess means I’m not the only one looking for a way to throttle back. And yes, I’m sitting here at my computer very late on a Friday night writing this. I’m trying, but I haven’t tamed this demon yet.

  9. Inese Poga Art Gallery

    I didn’t know writers could earn $1 per word. I’m working globally as a medical/translator/writer/interpreter (28 years experience), and the best I can get is 0.09 EUR or 0.12 USD per word. Well, and I have to study instantly for that and learn on the go because all these texts are mostly for medical specialists. New products, clinical trials, new treatments, devices, lots of terms, data, etc. I can earn 300-500 bucks a day, but I am sick the next day because my back, wrists and eyes simply hurt. Nobody should work that hard, but there are big drawbacks being a freelancer: you never know when the job comes in, what’s the deadline. It can happen that 100 pages are needed just in 3 days, so, it’s a lot of typing. Typing very fast, and I’m not allowed to make any errors or not follow the guidelines, EU and FDA, and all other regulations, etc.
    I’m reading the great stuff written by you, and I really think you’re so lucky. Writing is a hard work, however, there’s a difference in what one writes. Well, I’d never want to work 18 hours a day, but that happens. Plus, art classes, plus my own paintings, house, 3 meals a day because I cannot eat out, plenty really. The nice thing about being very rich is to be able to choose when and how much to work, if at all.
    I don’t think that North Americans actually work a lot. I don’t see many people having gardens or doing gardening, I am quite often seeing dirty, trashy and dumpy living places, I don’t hear so much about people who are somehow improving their living space (like decorating or adding some crafted stuff, painting it, making up some household item or piece of furniture). Working is great if one loves what he/she is doing. I have been working for 18 hours in a row quite often because of deadlines, but I’d never do it if I had a choice or good income.

    1. It’s interesting — and frustrating — that certain types of writing pay better than others. Yours does sound low…can you get work as an interpreter (i.e. in local hospitals?) instead? My sense is that would pay MUCH better…?

      I agree that wealth means choices and to choose to not work is the nicest of all. There can be a balance between hard work and income…but writing for a living has become much much more difficult. I made 2/3 more a year ***14 years ago***, and easily. The market has changed, and much for the worse. I have to look harder now, all the time, for people who pay decently.

  10. Caitlin- You’ve hit on a cultural marker that very definitely separates America (and American company cultures) from Europe and beyond. In America, one of the first questions you’ll hear at a cocktail party is, “So, what do you do?” Even “tell me about yourself” is the same question- it’s always about defining yourself by your vocation, your dedication to self-sacrifice.

    In Azerbaijan where I spent 10 years working (running a business and teaching at a university) they wanted to know about me, who I was, rather than about what I did. They often asked why Americans were so preoccupied with work.

    In Moscow it was more about who are your people- your family. And each weekend it would be away from work to gather with extended family at the dacha. Americans have no dacha society or mentality, unless you’re spending weekends in the Hamptons. Even there, I doubt it is solely about relaxing.

    In Washington DC there is a definite ‘Human Capital’ (disposable worker) mentality, even though, curiously, human capital is meant as a compliment, a way to value workers. Workers are valued as commodities, replaceable when they don’t want to spend the daily 15 – 18 hours + weekends required to meet unreasonable and ill-defined deliverables and deadlines. Not a great way to live at all.

    I suspect that your two examples could as easily have been from here… tweeting your sacrifices and dependence on energy drinks is a badge of honor here. Unfortunately, as in these stories here, American work culture is being exported and compliant international workers are just as easily exploited or replaced as we are. We reward Ph.Ds and Masters level expertise with salaries below the national average because the competition is so firece.

    Sad that in one of the most “industrialized” nations, we have some of the most unhealthy work attitudes- most seriously out of whack at the places where work rules and trends are set (like DC and NYC). Thanks for raising awareness of these important issues, and providing a more healthy balance model.

    1. I like living here, but this is one of the attitudes I will never agree with, accept or applaud. It’s insane. It devalues friendship, family and a healthy life with spiritual and emotional recharge time; instead, it’s essential to grind your precious and limited life away for income…

      And American exceptionalism blinds all that “human capital” to the very idea that others in other nations live very happily — on less money! with fewer hours! with more vacation and paid maternity leave! — in a very different way.

      I find the worship of work so tedious and narrowing. I usually ask people at parties “so, what do you do for fun?” The question is so odd it stumps some people. Fun? Fun????! 🙂 How can you possibly develop a wide range of artistic or creative or athletic or intellectual interests if all you do is work?

  11. Case in point… the very next thing I read (a bio): “Devoted customer service and client interaction is a high priority. A twelve hour day on our feet the whole time? Count me in, I’ve brought granola bars.” At least it wasn’t an energy drink!

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