I'll start with a true story. In the day, I worked in a high tech Fortune 500 firm where one top executive bragged about the high percentage of divorces within his division... as evidence of how hard they were working.

While I worked there, a couple of my coworkers went through messy divorces. The quality of their work plummeted (of course). What's more, the company generally and that division specifically failed miserably--as in huge layoffs and bankruptcy.

As stupid as the idea of divorces as a positive metric seems (to a sane person), it is only an extreme case of an almost universally-held belief--that business and personal success can only be achieved at the cost of your health and sanity.

And that's absurd, according to Jeffrey Pfeffer of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, author of Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance--and What We Can Do About It.

Highlights from this just-published, must-read book include these alarming facts:

  • 61 percent of employees said that workplace stress had made them sick
  • 7 percent of employees have been hospitalized as the result of workplace stress.
  • Job stress costs US employers more than $300 billion annually.
  • Job stress may cause 120,000 excess deaths in the US each year.
  • In China, as many a million people a year (!) may be dying from overwork. 

In a recent interview in Slate, Pfeffer cites a study showing that in technologically- and industrially-advanced nations, the longer the average number of work hours, the LOWER the productivity of the average worker.

Long work hours don't work. This is a statistical fact. And yet, thousands of companies create toxic cultures where overwork is common. What up with that?


Pfeffer's work more than buttresses what I've previously explained--that consistently working more than 40 hours a week creates more problems than it solves. As we get burned out, we make more mistakes, thus creating more work.

Why do we make more mistakes? Because overwork stresses our health and even our sanity, while it simultaneously destroys the support system that might otherwise buffer us from workplace tension.

Depression, for example, is a very common symptom of overwork. According to the Annals of Family Medicine,

"depression is associated with lowered work functioning, including absences, impaired productivity, and decreased job retention... Even minor levels of depression are associated with a loss of productivity."

And that's just depression. There are dozens of other stress-related illness, all of which take an enormous toll, not just on the employees, but on the companies that employ them. Toxic workplaces are literally killing us... and themselves in the process.


Pfeffer seems to believe that not much will change until our values as a culture change. If I've characterized his views correctly, he has a point. However, that doesn't mean that you, as an individual, are helpless. Here are three ways to mitigate the damage:

1. Launch your own business, using company resources if necessary.

I know that I'll get some flak for this piece of advice, but I believe that when a company demands that you work unpaid overtime, they owe you. Big time.

You are therefore morally and ethically entitled to use your current position to build your own network, find your own customers, develop your own ideas, and then give the company a silent "so long, sucka" when you leave.

A word of warning: be aware of what you can do legally. As a general rule, you want your startup to different enough from your current employer's business that there's no obvious conflict of interest. If there's any question, consult a lawyer!

But what if starting your own business is a non-starter and you're already stuck in one of these crazy-making companies? Well, the first rule is don't get caught up in the insanity. Don't buy into the nonsense.

Instead, learn to relax while appearing to work. Separate yourself emotionally. Spend time "working" when you're actually job hunting. There are jobs out there where people aren't crazy. You just have to keep looking until you find one.

2. Don't inflict overwork on yourself or your future employees.

As anyone who's started a business knows, it's easy to let your fear of failure drive you to work overly long hours in the hope it will lead to eventual success. It won't. Despite what you might want to believe, you are NOT the only person on earth who won't burn out.

Similarly, your fear of failure might convince you to demand long hours from your employees since, "after all, it worked for [successful company]." But that logic is fallacious because

  1. [successful company] might have succeeded in spite of, rather than because of, burning its employees out.
  2. For every [successful company] there are a hundred companies that failed due to overwork and its attendant problems.

Consider: if all companies--both successful and unsuccessful--are following the same management strategy and creating near identical corporate cultures, there's no way to tell whether or not either strategy or culture are creating success or failure.

3. Start calling bullsh*t on motivational speakers and coaches.

For decades now, we've heard motivational speakers and coaches who preach the gospel of long work hours. Anthony Robbins is one (among many) but the worst of the lot, in my view, is Gary Vee, who advises would-be entrepreneurs to work 18 hours a day.

In my view, Gary Vee has done a world of harm by spreading this nonsense which runs contrary to medical science, business statistics and plain common sense. This kind of bullsh*t provides an intellectual framework (I use the term loosely) for toxic workplaces.

While calling bullsh*t on Gary Vee and his ilk might seem like a pointless exercise, it's a visceral way to reinforce a refusal to run your life (or even lose it) based upon a stupid, unscientific and ultimately unproductive belief.