"Well, you know," I said, struggling for words, "where you are overloaded with work, and it becomes a source of stress."
"I still don't know what you mean by this term 'overload.' For example, your boss could give you some work which you could probably finish within a certain amount of time, but that's not overload because it is something you can accomplish, even if it is difficult. Or he could give you an amount of work that is impossible to finish in a certain amount of time, in which case you simply have to say 'I can't do this.' So, what do you mean?"
He wasn't getting it. But I failed to understand why he didn't get it. The concept of work overload isn't some obscure American custom, or even something unique to Western culture. After all, the Japanese have even coined the word karoshi--death by work overload. I decided to frame it in his terms. "Well, let's say you're a young monk and you're studying and practicing Buddhism. So your teacher would be the equivalent of your boss."
"O.K., right." He nodded. "I understand."
"And your job is to learn and memorize certain texts, so let's say your boss gives you a text that you need to memorize by next week. It's a very challenging text. Now, if you work hard, maybe you can memorize it by next week, but it's going to be very difficult. Then he comes back a few hours later and says, 'Well, now you have to memorize an additional text along with this text in the same amount of time.' And he's your boss--you can't just say, 'I'm going to quit, I'm not going to be a monk anymore.' So, work overload in this context means that you are given more and more to do but not enough time to do it."
"Oh, now I think I understand. For example, when I was around twenty, in Tibet, I had to give an important teaching, and for preparation I had homework early morning and late evening. Then I had to get up very early before my attendants arrived and even when my attendants had left, late into the evening I had to read and memorize. So I woke up a few hours earlier and went to bed a few hours later--that is the kind of overload?"
"But then this is something that with extra attention and energy, it's something I could achieve. And that was O.K. for the short term. But if I were to continue with this having less sleep for a long time, having that kind of overload for a whole year, then it would be impossible."
"But that's the kind of thing many people are faced with these days," I informed him.
"So why can't these people say 'I can't do this' right from the beginning?" he asked. "Do they get fired?"
"In many cases, yes."
"In that case I think it goes back to knowing one's limitations. And if a boss gives more work to do and it is beyond their capacity, then I think they have to say something. They have to say 'This is too much work for me' and talk to the boss and try to reduce it. If that doesn't work, then they may need to look for new work.
"However, at that point let's say that the boss agrees to extra pay, and the employee agrees, then that is a person's decision and there's no cause to complain about overload. But if the boss gives too much work without increase of salary, then this 'overload' is just exploitation, the kind that we just spoke about.
"But I think in these kinds of situations, the employer has a responsibility to judge how much a person can reasonably be expected to do. Too much overload is simply a lack of concern, lack of respect. Even overloading an animal is disrespectful to that life--so, that's exploitation, it's unfair," he said with a resolute tone.
"I'm glad that you mentioned the issue of unfairness," I replied, "because that is another of the sources of workplace dissatisfaction. In fact, I think we're touching upon some of the most common sources of dissatisfaction at the workplace.
From The Art of Happiness at Work. Copyright The Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Riverhead Books.
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