Karoshi – “Death by Overwork”

A man rests on his commute home. Image by Adrian Storey. Source: Japan Times
A man rests on his commute home. Image by Adrian Storey. Source: Japan Times

Anja Bless – Senior Editor


While in Japan there is no term for ‘work-life balance’ there is a term for working yourself to death – karoshi.

Labour demand in Japan is at its highest since 1991 with 1.28 jobs available per applicant but what is also reaching record highs is the number of compensation claims for karoshi, climbing to a record 1,456 last year. Many have been quick to blame Japan’s culture of arduously working for extended hours, however in spite of the traditional connotation that karoshi affects the male ‘salaryman’ office workers; young women in temporary employment are emerging as new victims. According to the Japanese Labour ministry work-related suicides among women have increased by 39% since 1990.

One of the problems when it comes to tackling karoshi is that it is both ambiguous and politically charged. The term refers to a broad spectrum of medical conditions that could be work-related and result in death, serious injury or illness. It has been used to explain suicides, ulcers, insomnia, back pain and even impotence.


A worker feels the stress at a firm in Japan. Source: Issei Kato/Reuturs.
A worker feels the stress at a firm in Japan. Source: Issei Kato/Reuturs.

Overtime and out of time

According to the Japan Times, the Labour Ministry only recognises two types of Karoshi: suicide following work-related stress and death from cardiovascular illness linked to overwork. And in order for these deaths to be considered, certain conditions must be met. A cardiovascular death can be considered karoshi if an employee had worked 100 hours of overtime in the month prior, or 80 hours of overtime in two or more consecutive months out of the previous six.

A suicide will only qualify if it occurs after an individual works 160 hours or more of overtime in one month, or over 100 hours for three consecutive months. So while the government only reports a particular number of claims which meet their criteria, other estimates vary greatly. For example, the National Defence Counsel for Victims of Karoshi estimates that the strains of excess work kills more than 10,000 Japanese workers annually.


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A man sleeps as he waits for his train home. Source: yournewswire.com
A man sleeps as he waits for his train home. Source: yournewswire.com

Regardless, any deaths related to overwork should be concerning for a government that is dealing with a dwindling labour force thanks to a rapidly ageing population. But rather than protect its precious workforce the Japanese government continues to maintain labour laws which do not impose any legal limits on working hours.

Many complain of companies which tell employees that their salary includes 80 hours overtime work and that they must reimburse their employer if they fail to fulfil their quota. Others have revealed how employers have been using a ‘bait and switch’ policy, where a full-time position with reasonable working hours is advertised but the successful applicant is instead offered a non-regular contract with longer hours, often including overnight or weekend shifts, and no overtime pay. While refusing to pay for overtime work is illegal, prospective employees are tempted by the promise that they will be given a regular contract in due course and for young applicants or mothers returning to the work force, the opportunity to get a foothold in the industry is often seen as too good to miss.


Young prospective female employees take notes at a job fair. Source: Japan Times/Reuters.
Young prospective female employees take notes at a job fair. Source: Japan Times/Reuters.

By the numbers

Roughly 22.3% of Japanese employees work an average of 50 hours or more per week , this is almost double the United States at 11.3% and Britain at 12.7%. A Japanese government study found that 16% of full-time workers took no paid holidays in 2013 and other took barely half of their allotted time on average. And the problem is not set to improve. Last year Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet approved a bill to exempt employees who earn over US$88,000 a year from work hour limits. While business lobbies argue that this will reward merit-based work (that is, if they get the work done faster, they get to work fewer hours), critics dismiss the bill as a way to avoid paying overtime.

The government has passed other legislation which have attracted less controversy, such as a law which forces workers to take their full two weeks annual leave. And within the government itself, the public service is attempting to convince employees to start earlier and leave earlier in order to spend more time with their families.

However, more than legislation, what needs to change is the culture. The karoshi epidemic stems from the 1970s when wages were relatively low and employees sought to maximise income. These habits continued through the boom of the 1980s until a time of economic decline in the 1990s where companies were forced to restructure and employees worked longer hours to try to ensure they still had a job the next day.

Now it has become a culture where not putting extra hours in reflects poorly on an employee both in the eyes of their superiors and their equals.

However, Japan is not alone in its battle with workaholism – China is also facing an epidemic of overwork. Around 600,000 Chinese workers are dying each year from overwork. In China, there is also a term like karoshi – ‘guolaosi’.

“We have noticed that excessive overtime in China has become an issue,” said the director of the International Labour Organisation’s China office, Tim De Meyer.

“It is worrying as a physical and mental-health hazard.”

A recent All-China Women's Federation survey estimated that there are 61 million rural left-behind children in China. Source: Women of China
A recent All-China Women’s Federation survey estimated that there are 61 million rural left-behind children in China. Source: Women of China

Studies have shown that in parts of Beijing 60% of workers complain of clocking more than the legal limit of two hours of overtime a day. And the need to work has created an entire generation of left-behind children who are being raised by their grandparents in rural homes whilst their parents migrate for work.

Again, China battles a culture where work is a means of earning and maintaining respect as well as a way to improve the economic circumstances of both themselves and their family.

In a world economy where everything is a competition, companies are creating an atmosphere of desperation – establishing cultures where overworking is not simply an option, it is expected. And what difference does it make to the large and wealthy conglomerates if their employees literally work themselves to death? In a globalised labour market, there is always someone to take their place.


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