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Elon Musk sets a terrible example of overwork

12 SEPTEMBER 2018


Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla, is overworking himself.

In a recent New York Times interview he said he was having an excruciating year of working up to 120 hours a week and taking a sleeping pill, Ambien, to get to sleep. He admits the stress is taking a heavy toll on him personally.

With all due respect, this is a terrible example for a leader to be setting. Surely Musk is not so crucial that he can't bring in others to do the work and support him.

He says sometimes he won't leave the Tesla factory for three or four days straight and had not taken off more than a week at a time since he had malaria in 2001.

To those concerned about him he says: "Ford and Tesla are the only two American car companies to avoid bankruptcy. … You think this is an option. It is not."

It seems 47-year-old Musk believes he must work himself virtually to death for Tesla to thrive.

In recent months Musk has been unpredictable and erratic in his behaviour. Last month he tweeted saying he was considering making Tesla, currently a public company, private.

The share price shot up 11 per cent in one day, causing the Securities and Exchange Commission to talk to Musk about his statement and two lawsuits to be filed alleging the post was designed to lift Tesla's stocks.

However, during the week of Musk's interview, which made people aware of his issues, Tesla's shares dropped 14 per cent, decreasing the company's market value by US$8.5 billion (NZ$13b).

Experts say the board must consider options such as forcing Musk to take a period of leave, removing him as chief executive or appointing an executive to his right hand to act as a steadying influence.

Many people in high-powered jobs consider themselves indispensable or are prepared to sacrifice their health for the public good.

Last week Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had to leave her 11-week-old daughter in New Zealand when she travelled to Nauru for the Pacific Islands Forum. Her daughter was too young for the necessary vaccinations for visiting Nauru and the meeting was too important for Ardern to miss.

To manage her commitments and time away from her young daughter, Ardern departed for Nauru at 2am on Wednesday morning and returned at 11.30pm that night.

Japan has a particular problem with people working until they suffer real harm or even die. They actually have an expression for it – death from overwork is called "karoshi".

There are many haunting examples of karoshi. Miwa Sado was a journalist at Japan's national broadcaster's headquarters in Tokyo. In July 2013, she died of heart failure at the age of 31, after logging 159 hours of overtime in the month before her death.

On Christmas Day, 2015, 24-year-old Matsuri Takahashi jumped to her death. Labour standards officials ruled the cause of death to be karoshi. Takahashi had been working more than 100 hours overtime in the months before her death and barely slept.

The Japanese government recognises Karoshi is a real problem. A government survey found work issues contributed to 2159 suicides in 2015.

In June this year, Japan's Parliament passed a bill limiting overtime to 100 hours a month. However some fear it won't do enough to combat the deeply entrenched culture of overwork in Japan.

What about New Zealand? New Zealand has the highest youth suicide rate in the OECD. Around 500 New Zealanders die by suicide every year. No doubt some of these people experience extreme stress, whether at work, at school, university, or at home.

The Government has recognised the depth of mental health issues in New Zealand by setting up a Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction.

Highly respected former ombudsman Ron Paterson is chairing the inquiry. The purpose of the inquiry is to hear the voices of the community, report on New Zealand's response to mental health and addiction, and recommend specific changes to improve our response.

New Zealand does have laws and guidelines to manage work. Employment agreements must fix the maximum number of hours to be worked by the employee at not more than 40 a week, not including overtime, unless the employer and employee agree otherwise.

Of course this means people can still work longer hours by agreement and many do.

A recent OECD study found 13.8 per cent of New Zealand employees work more than 50 hours a week. We have the ninth-highest percentage, above even the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

Workers with set hours who are paid by the hour can only be required to work additional hours if their employment agreement has a specific clause requiring them to accept work. They must be compensated for being available for extra hours and paid their hourly rate for the time worked.

Most salaried workers are not entitled to overtime payments where they work above 40 hours. Salary is usually considered compensation for all hours worked, so long as the worker is not paid less than minimum wage for each hour. In most situations there is no extra cost to employers when salaried workers undertake long hours.

The Health and Safety at Work Act requires businesses to ensure workers' health and safety. Harm to a worker's physical or mental health due to overwork would breach the act.

However, prosecutions have focussed almost exclusively on physical harm rather than stress, psychological harm, or bullying.

Hopefully the government inquiry recommends ways to better look after our working population and address mental health generally. We all need balanced lives, with time for family and leisure as well as work.

We have an enthusiastic and energetic prime minister. But even Ardern, who arguably has the most pressured job in New Zealand, needs a break from work from time to time


Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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