UT Professor Recommends We Work Less For Our Own Good


So many Japanese workers have died at their desks since the 1980s that there’s a word for it: karoshi, “death by overwork.” The term is legally recognized as a cause of death in Japan, and the families of its victims are entitled to compensation. Americans now work longer hours on average than the Japanese and according to a recent paper by UT economics professor Daniel S. Hamermesh, we’re paying a price for it.

Hamermesh found that general satisfaction increased after both Korea and Japan passed legislation reducing workweek hours from the record highs they were at. The laws made it illegal to work more than 8 hours a day and more than 40 hours a week barring rest periods and extenuating circumstances. If overtime was necessary, the law sought to ensure that everyone working overtime made at least 25% more than normal, and including provisions to make more workers eligible for overtime. Hamermesh noted that the current American system lets many workers fall through the cracks in overtime eligibility. Though it’s impossible to know with certainty that the legislation worked, the researchers were hard-pressed to find other reasons for increased satisfaction across both societies.

Higher satisfaction comes at a cost, however. “There’s no question that if you want to do this, you’re going to have to have take less pay,” Hamermesh noted. Even so, Hamermesh thinks the trade-off is worth it. “I think we’re a very rich country and we’re in a situation where we’re chasing our tails working more and more, and having no time to enjoy ourselves,” he says.

It’s possible to attribute the long hours to Americans’ work-hard-play-hard mentality. Hamermesh suspects there is another reason. “I think the rich people are the ones who are disproportionately working long hours and they like it,” he says. “ This is unfortunate because long hours by high-wage people spill off into long hours in work time for less well-off people. This is an effect of the rising inequality in this country.”

The study found that the Jordan Belfort-esque, “work hard, play harder,” mentality mostly just ends up being a myth. Hamermesh and his colleagues noted that longer workweeks lead to fatigue and decreased productivity. It ends up becoming a case of “work hard, then work less hard.”

Hamermesh isn’t optimistic about a solution to the problems posed by long work weeks, but still finds reasons to be hopeful. “One of the reasons I’m in this business is I think the biggest affect academics can have is not a specific effect on anything, but instead changing the way people think about things. That’s really important and maybe this paper can do that a little bit.”

Photo courtesy Indi Samarajiva.


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