Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Karoshi and Work Spirituality

It has that familiar ring to it. The questions: “Does your work have meaning and purpose?” “Have you ever considered what meaningful work is and how to go about making it so?” For some of us who have attended marketplace theology classes, these are issues we think about all the time. Different stages of our learning reveal a different kind of flavor in our approach to it. The core belief is largely similar: Glorify God in all we do, including our workplace efforts. For Christians, the approach is usually from the biblical perspective. Dr Kenneth Boa and Gail Burnett observe that many people in the workplace tend to view work in a negative light.
  • The daily grind
  • Overworked and underpaid
  • Work like a dog
  • Slaving through the day
While these stems from an unhappiness that gets released at the end of the day or during coffee time, some become extreme forms of stress leading to death.

In Japan, the recent series of deaths arising from overwork have led the greater use of the word “Karoshi,” a Japanese word for ‘death from over work.’ This word was first cited in an organization interested in the study of work and stress. With rising deaths due to karoshi, an crisis web site has been created to try to help people cope with overwork. Recent cases of karoshi only have highlighted the rising problem. The highly regarded British publication, The Economist, picked up on this recent trend with an article “Japanese employees are working themselves to death,” published in Dec 2007. Interestingly, the two recent prominent karoshi cases involve the leading carmaker, Toyota, currently on the verge of becoming the top car company in terms of sales of number of vehicles. I have been reading up on Toyota these past weeks and have been impressed by their culture of excellence and quality. The Toyota Production System has been used as a case study at top MBA schools. Books like “The Toyota Way (Jeffrey Liker)” and “How Toyota Became #1 (David Magee)” have been written to help business leaders emulate their success. However, I can hardly find any warning messages about overwork and the need to take care of the soul at the workplace. Isn’t it obvious, that an unrealistic optimism renders one depressed when reality kicks in? Behind every success lies thousands of hours of hard work and failed attempts. It is a pity that business books often paint the positives so well that it disguises this fact. We need a reality check every-time we read business publications that trumpet the glory of any one method or organization. Jeffrey Liker, who wrote about the Toyota Culture, trumpets Toyota’s human systems as part of their success factors. However, I feel it is fails to go deep enough, even though he calls it the ‘heart and soul’ of the company. For instance, Liker calls culture as something that is ‘all in the head’ (Liker, Toyota Culture, 5). The purpose of people in the books is to make the company successful. Thus, management is called to care for people because people are the reason for their success. Yet, when the economy slows down, and when profits are at risk, cutting jobs (and people’s livelihood) become almost the de-facto management strategy to ‘stay afloat’ or ‘be responsible to shareholders.’ Of course, it is not fair to blame karoshi on just one company. Even restaurants have been known to have become factors to karoshi cases. I believe it is the entire work ethic gone astray. Though karoshi has largely been confined to Japanese situations, I do have some concerns.

Firstly, many have tried to emulate Japan as a model for their own successes. Are they unwittingly digging the graves for an eventual karoshi themselves? Secondly, can anyone of us realistically recreate Japan’s context for business success? Japan is a unique country, with a history that is not repeated elsewhere. Being the only country in the world to have suffered a nuclear detonation, their economic rise from the ashes of war have built in them a unique resilience. Thirdly, the Japanese culture cannot be easily replicated. There are not many cultures I know that retains their traditional culture in spite of technological advancement.

Workplace Spirituality on the Rise
Protestant Christians generally pride themselves as being part of the ‘Protestant Ethic,’ popularized by the Puritans in the 18th Century during the New Awakening revival, as well as Max Weber, the German economist who wrote “The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism.” The core motive is the increase of wealth, rather than the pursuit of healthy working individuals. If the pursuit of money is the overarching goal, then isn’t it obvious that all other things, including people become the means to that end? Like it or not, Dilbert has painted this as a top management lie.
"Employees are our most valuable asset.”
For the skeptic, they see this both ways. People become valuable assets because in good times, they can be used to increase profits. In bad times, they can be quickly offloaded to cut losses. That will be far too cruel on management, who are people themselves. Having worked in the marketplace for 13 years, I am familiar with this conundrum. Not all workers are angels. Wherever possible, some will attempt to take advantage of the organization for selfish reasons. Others will try to maximize gains even at the expense of community within the company. We cannot be too hard-and-fast about any one rule. However, to run a successful company, we need to adopt and practice a healthy people philosophy. Having said that, publishing a grand philosophical statement is not enough. The key is in the implementation of these principles. I think one of the key elements is the spiritual factor in any business. The need has always been there. We only need to recognize it. Patricia Aburdene’s Megatrends 2010 lists ‘Spirituality in Business’ as one of the seven ‘Megatrends’ for the new century. In fact, out of seven, she lists ‘spirituality’ TWICE! For companies to succeed, even survive, there is a need to evoke ‘human consciousness’ in the workplace. In contrast to the previous Megatrend books, this latest publication is significantly more ‘internal’ and more ‘spiritual.’

I am a little suspicious here of the modern books on spirituality. Firstly, it is not explicitly Christian in perspective. While some authors claim the importance of spirituality, they left it pretty much open to all kinds of spiritual things, which is very new-age or postmodern new-age. If people are a means to an end in the previous two to three decades, the next decade is using gods as a means to an end. The objective of a capitalist organization is the same: Make more profits regardless. How should a Christian then work in a world confused about their own values, while conscious of the need for spiritual consciousness? I think education remains a key component in the revival of Christian spirituality in the workplace. Dr Paul Stevens is a pioneer in the field of marketplace theology, and I like his reading of Thomas Aquinas’s ‘seven spiritual alms deeds’ for the marketplace.
  • To feed the hungry (the food industry)
  • To give drink to the thirsty (beverage)
  • To clothe the naked (clothing, design)
  • To harbor the harborless (hospitality)
  • To visit the sick (medicine, counseling)
  • To ransom the captive (police, military)
  • To bury the dead (funeral business)

    [Paul Stevens, Doing God’s Business, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006, p214]
The list can be longer, but the point is, we need to see everything from the perspective of God and from our neighbours. Whatever we do or work, if we can see it as part of being obedient to the call of God to love God and to love neighbour in all that we do, this world will be a much better place to live in. Our workplaces will not be prisons of chore and toil, but a garden in which we tend lovingly, gratefully and joyfully.


No comments:

Latest Posts