23 May 2024

If you think hard work won’t kill you, think again.

The story of a senior employee of a television news channel in Thailand, who suddenly died at his desk, recently went viral on social media.

A Facebook post described how this 44-year-old male employee was overworked by his employer. He regularly worked overtime, seven days a week at times, as there was no one to stand in for him. Even worse, he was even called back in to finish his work after being on sick leave for only two days.

He reportedly had underlying conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure. It was later confirmed that he died of a heart attack.

The original post was flooded with thousands of comments, expressing sympathy for the man while sharing their own experiences of having to work tirelessly for their companies, to the point that it adversely affected their health.

A separate post from the same user further explained his circumstances, adding that his colleagues all witnessed his working conditions and all had heard him saying “Maybe I have to wait until I die before they find someone to help with my work”.

-Risks of overworking-

Unfortunately, these tragic stories are nothing new. In Japan, a 31-year-old journalist at the country’s public broadcaster NHK died in 2013 from ‘karoshi’, the Japanese term for death from overwork, after logging 159 hours of overtime in a month.

The notorious death, which was made public in 2017, has put pressure on the Japanese authorities to address the increasing number of deaths caused by its harsh work culture, particularly where employees are expected to commit to long working hours.

In fact, death from overworking is a real problem, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a study by the World Health Organisation and the International Labour Organisation, long working hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29% increase since 2000.

The study also stated that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week.

-Thailand’s overworking culture-

Harsh work cultures often lead to burnout. The workload is just part of it, but many employees in Thai work settings do believe that staying after work will make them appear more hard-working than those who finish their work and leave on-time.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has made people aware of the problem and they are now placing more importance on the work-life balance.

In recent years, several companies, especially in the West, have introduced the four-day work week, instead of the traditional five days, to encourage a positive work-life balance for all employees. This move has proven successful, as workers are reportedly much happier and their productivity has actually increased.

Seeking a good work-life balance has also resulted in new working trends, such as quiet quitting, with workers setting clear boundaries at work and not going beyond their responsibilities, in order to prioritise their family, friends, hobbies or, simply, life. At the same time, more young workers are willing to quit their jobs without having a new job to fall back on.

This doesn’t seem to work in Thailand’s working culture, however, as they still believe that working hard will help them get somewhere in life, such as earning a promotion, a salary increase or even becoming the leader one day.

Many Thais still continue to prioritise their work because, if they don’t, they will not earn enough money to make ends meets, whether it is due to the skyrocketing cost of living or sending their children to a good school. In other words, without money you can’t do anything.

Even if they want a better work-life balance, they simply can’t due to their circumstances.

The situation is much worse for companies experiencing staff shortages, where the remaining employees are being forced to take on the responsibilities of those who resign or who were laid-off, on top of their current responsibilities.

-The response so far-

The Thai Journalists Association expressed their condolences and has demanded that the news channel compensate the family of the deceased employee, as well as introducing measures to prevent such tragedies happening again.

The association is also demanding that related authorities, such as The National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC) and the Labour Ministry, launch an investigation into the channel’s work conditions and whether it complies with the labour law and standard work practices.

It also stated that the work culture in Thai media, particularly digital TV channels, is at risk of violating the labour law, such as staff working overtime without getting paid, staff working double shifts without breaks and employers not allowing their staff to take leave.

Under immense pressure on social media, the news channel has finally released a joint statement expressing its deep condolences to the deceased man’s family and promised to compensate them. This response does not, however, seem have to satisfied netizens, and the criticism against the channel continues.

The outrage even prompted Labour Minister Suchart Chomklin to order an investigation into the news channel’s working conditions.

-Work is not your life-

Ultimately, work is not your family and work is not your life. As much as you love your job, you still need time for yourself and your loved ones.

One lesson that we’ve learnt from this tragedy is that, when you’re dead and gone, the employer will always find someone to replace you, but you will always be irreplaceable to your family.

As for employers, we all need to start prioritising healthy work boundaries and our employees’ physical and mental well-being at work. Maybe we need to overhaul our work culture, before the death toll from overworking starts to rise.

By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World