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We’re Working So Hard These Days, It’s Actually Killing People

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Your parents probably told you that “a little hard work never killed anyone.” Perhaps that advice might motivate a teenager to help out in the yard, but it’s not strictly true. In fact, hard work can be deadly.

We all know that there are many dangerous jobs in the world and many people who are hurt or worse while working. Statistics from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration make this reality clear:

4,405 workers were killed on the job in 2013––on average, 85 a week or more than 12 deaths every day.

Many of these are in physical environments where the work is taxing and there are dangers everywhere. In fact, 20% of deaths are in just one field: construction. Yet, an article in The Nation about people being required to do more with less:

In industry after industry, speedups are turning work into a hazard, with increasing numbers of injuries and dangerous levels of stress. While 18.6 million people remain underemployed, millions of others are working more hours, and more intensely, than ever.

Overwork is a particular problem among professionals: 14 percent of women and 38 percent of men were working more than fifty hours a week. But it has become common in industrial occupations as well. “When time and a half for overtime was established by federal law, that was really a job-creation measure, so it would cost less to hire a new worker,” says Mike Wright, the United Steelworkers’ director of health and safety. “But starting in the late 1970s, the cost of benefits exceeded that extra pay cost, and it became cheaper to work your existing workers harder.”

Hard Work Can Hurt

© Flickr user normalityrelief

It might seem like these risks are limited to relatively unskilled jobs in food service, agriculture, or manufacturing, where people are working with big, dangerous machines at cut-rate wages. But the studies show similar problems in healthcare, where many employees are highly-trained, well-paid, and mostly working in close contact:

Numerous studies over the past decade have shown that higher patient-to-nurse ratios are strongly correlated with medical errors and worse health outcomes, including more patient deaths. A 2007 study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that each additional patient assigned to a nurse above optimal levels was associated with an increased risk of 7 percent for pneumonia and 53 percent for respiratory failure.

We’ve talked about nursing as a prime example here on The Methodology Blog before. In a piece about moving to a six-hour workday, we mentioned a long-standing question in the medical field: are twelve hours shifts safe?

But it’s not just hospitals that are demanding more and more rather than hiring more help. In a story about a plane crash, Fox News quotes the deceased pilot and first officer:

[Captain] Beal had recently expressed concern about the schedules at the cargo carrier, according to a summary of investigators’ interviews with witnesses.

“About 7 weeks before the accident, he told a colleague that the schedules were becoming more demanding because they were flying up to three legs per night,” according to summary of interviews compiled by investigators. Beal said, “I can’t do this until I retire because it’s killing me,” and had a similar conversation with another colleague the night before the accident, the summary said.

In text messages at 11:18 a.m. the day before the crash, [First Officer] Fanning described her exhaustion in text messages retrieved by investigators.

“I fell asleep on every damn leg last nite,” she wrote. “Bed by 645 ish, now #8 up, slept like 4 # hrs…. Van isnt till 8 tonite so hoping i will nap again this afternoon,” she texted, referring to a van that was schedule to pick up the flight crew at their hotel and take them to the airport.

Every business needs to be more effective and more efficient to stay competitive. But the process cannot include simply asking people to do more.

Instead: here’s the secret to increasing productivity: make smarter use of technology, empower workers to make decisions, and embrace freedom as a core value.

Don’t demand more. Instead, support more. The result will be not only greater returns for your company, but a happier, more engaged workforce.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


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