Reminder: Please Take Vacation So You Don’t Die

By | October 8, 2015

Grant Thornton recently offered its employees unlimited vacation time, which is a problem. The worry –- as Caleb is right to note — is that GT employees will take less PTO than before.

If GT really got serious about employee health, and forced people to take vacation, they wouldn’t be the first place to consider it. You may be dynamic, GT, but you’re not that special. Neither is the USA. As it stands, the United States is the only country in the industrialized world that does not guarantee its citizens paid vacation. That’s right, just like student competence in math, science and amusing gameshows, Japan has beaten us. Again.

Japan’s government is currently debating whether to force employees to take vacations. Why? TO SAVE LIVES. So many people in Japan die from overwork that there’s a word for it: “karoshi: death from overwork.”

Studies show that most Japanese employees don’t take all of their allotted vacation time. In 2013, Japan’s Labor Ministry “found that employees only took nine out of an average […] 18.5 days of paid vacation. Another poll […] found that 1 in 6 workers took no paid vacation whatsoever.”

The same extreme competition and work ethic that’s responsible for the original (and far superior to the American) “Ninja Warrior” has Japanese employees working themselves to death. Japan hopes to combat karoshi by forcing employees to take their allotted paid time off.

If the country of Japan has to force its employees to take vacation to prevent overwork, surely US public accounting firms, whose propensity for inhuman working conditions is widely known, should consider a similar policy. Going Concern has long-pressed the issue of taking all your vacation days but it's worth remembering that time away from work can be life or death. If you continue down this overworn path of working like a cray-cray and not utilizing your paid time off benefits, you will probably die from overwork. Think I’m exaggerating? Let's review:

  • In 2011, a PwC intern died of acute cerebral meningitis after working 18 hour days and 120 hour weeks prior to her death. Average week of busy season. Though PwC vehemently denies that the long hours killed her, I’m sure ‘emergency room’ was not high on her list of priorities during that 120 hour workweek. The intern wasn’t even sleeping. "Of course there's the macho contingent inside these firms that say 'sleep is for the weak' and that's the kind of attitude that perpetuates the culture of 'getting the job done.' "
  • And karoshi isn’t limited to unfortunate accounting interns. In 2011, attorney Lisa Johnstone had been taking “the lawyer version of performance enhancers” (whatever that means) to survive 100 hour workweeks; her heart stopped on a Sunday night, and she collapsed and died on a pile of response briefs. She was 32. A 35 year-old attorney died a year later after working twenty hour days in the push to make partner. He didn’t take his vacation, nor did he make partner because he’s dead, you fools.
  • Even if you do survive to make partner before you die from overwork, you need to remember to take your vacation so you don’t die at work. In 2010, a BKD partner died of a heart attack in his office. But he isn’t even the first accountant to die in his desk. In 2004, a tax accountant in Finland died at his desk on a Tuesday. Nobody noticed that he was dead until Thursday – presumably because his coworkers were all too busy also working themselves to death. Death from overwork made international news yet again in 2013 when a Bank of America intern collapsed and died in the shower after working three 21 hour days in a row.
  • These examples don’t even take into account the devastating effect that overwork can have on mental health. Tragically, the suicide rate for finance workers is 1.51 times greater than average according to one study. Two bankers, in unrelated situations, threw themselves off buildings this year after working grueling jobs that required 100 hour weeks. Sadly, a Deloitte partner took his own life in 2012; one of the contributing factors in his death was work-related stress.

The pressure to not only work hard but to work impossibly long and grueling hours is so intense, especially in a career like accounting that will take as much from you as you give it. Especially when a career that promises so much –- prestige, partnership -– it can be hard to take time away. But remember, you can’t make partner if you’re karoshi: dead from overwork.