Karōshi (過労死?), which can be translated literally as "death from overwork" in Japanese, is occupational sudden death. The major medical causes of karōshi deaths are heart attack and stroke due to stress and a starvation diet.
The first case of karōshi was reported in 1969 with the stroke-related death of a 29-year-old male worker in the shipping department of Japan's largest newspaper company. It was not until the later part of the 1980s, during the Bubble Economy, however, when several high-ranking business executives who were still in their prime years suddenly died without any previous sign of illness, that the media began picking up on what appeared to be a new phenomenon. This new phenomenon was quickly labeled "karōshi" and was immediately seen as a new and serious menace for people in the work force. In 1987, as public concern increased, the Japanese Ministry of Labour began to publish statistics on karōshi.
Japan's rise from the devastation of World War II to economic prominence in the post-war decades has been regarded as the trigger for what has been called a new epidemic. It was recognized that employees cannot work for 12 or more hours a day, 6-7 days a week, year after year, without suffering physically as well as mentally. It is common for the overtime to go unpaid.
In an International Labour Organization article about karōshi,  the following four typical cases of karōshi were mentioned:
- Mr. A worked at a major snack food processing company for as long as 110 hours a week (not a month) and died from a heart attack at the age of 34. His death was recognized as work-related by the Labour Standards Office.
- Mr. B, a bus driver, whose death was also recognized as work-related, worked more than 3,000 hours a year. He did not have a day off in the 15 days before he had a stroke at the age of 37.
- Mr. C worked in a large printing company in Tokyo for 4,320 hours a year including night work and died from a stroke at the age of 58. His widow received workers’ compensation 14 years after her husband’s death.
- Ms. D, a 22-year-old nurse, died from a heart attack after 34 hours of continuous duty five times a month.
As well as physical pressure, mental stress from the workplace can cause karōshi. People who commit suicide due to mental stress are called “karōjisatsu (過労自殺).” The ILO also lists some causes of overwork or occupational stress that includes the following:
- All-night, late-night or holiday work, both long and excessive hours. During the long-term economic recession after the collapse of the bubble economy in the 1980s and 1990s, many companies reduced the number of employees. The total amount of work, however, did not decrease, forcing each employee to work harder.
- Stress accumulated due to frustration at not being able to achieve the goals set by the company. Even in economic recession, companies tended to demand excessive sales efforts from their employees and require them to achieve better results. This increased the psychological burden placed on the employees at work.
- Forced resignation, dismissal, and bullying. For example, employees who worked for a company for many years and saw themselves as loyal to the company were suddenly asked to resign because of the need for staff cutbacks.
- Suffering of middle management. They were often in a position to lay off workers and torn between implementing a corporate restructuring policy and protecting their staff.
Effects on society
Many will be prepared to work unpaid overtime to an extreme extent particularly since their younger co-workers will often quit when a job is too strenuous. In some cases, it has been proven that firms were aware of the poor health of an employee.
The deceased person's relatives demand compensation payments when such deaths occur. However, before compensation can be awarded, the labour inspection office must acknowledge that the death was work-related. Since this may take many years in detailed and time-consuming judicial hearings, many do not demand payment.
A number of companies have been making an effort to find a better work-life balance for their employees. Toyota, for example, now generally limits overtime to 360 hours a year (an average of 30 hours monthly), and, at some offices, issues public address announcements every hour after 7 p.m. pointing out the importance of rest and urging workers to go home. Nissan offers telecommuting for office workers to make it easier to care for children or elderly parents. Dozens of large corporations have also implemented "no overtime days", which require employees to leave the office promptly at 5:30 p.m. However, since their workload is too high, few workers can actually take advantage of this, and opt to stay in the office with the lights off or to simply take their work home, "cloaked overtime" called "furoshiki" (風呂敷) after the Japanese traditional wrapping cloth.
In 2007, Mitsubishi UFJ Trust & Banking, a division of Japan's largest banking group, started to allow employees to go home up to 3 hours early to care for children or elderly relatives. As of January 5, 2009, just 34 of the company's 7,000 employees had signed up for the plan.
The problem with unpaid overtime in companies is that the overtime is simply not recorded in many cases. The amount of overtime is regulated by labor regulations, so, in order to not contradict labor regulations, workers are told not to record the overtime, since it would be considered an illegal action from the side of the company. The workers themselves often rationalize this by attributing the overwork to lacking skills from their side, describing a lack of familiarity with the work, "not being trained enough" as the cause for not being able to finish in a more timely manner. In general, overtime is something that is accepted as part of work, and protest against it is rare, due to concern for the reaction of colleagues, superiors and even family and friends. "Seken" (世間), or the "public gaze" (others' opinions about one's behavior) is a strong cultural factor in this. It is safe to assume that most statistics of overtime in Japanese companies are not accurate, since overtime is not recorded in many occasions. It is not uncommon for many Japanese employees to work late hours until 2-3am, and being expected to be in the office again at 9am. In some cases (especially in subsidiaries of big listed companies that have to cope with the pressure of parent companies, who generate margins through exploitation of daughter companies) employees have been reported to have worked 300 hours of overtime in a single month. These statistics are in almost all cases not official, and most employees would always refrain from making such statements to authorities or the press, nor would they agree to be named.
The French-German TV channel Arte showed a documentary called "Alt in Japan" (Old in Japan) on 6 November 2006 dealing with older workers in Japan. In 2008, karōshi again made headlines: a death back in 2006 of a key Toyota engineer who averaged over 80 hours overtime each month was ruled the result of overwork. His family was awarded benefits after his case was reviewed.
The Taiwanese media has reported a case of karōshi. An engineer had worked in Nanya Technology for 3 years from 2006 to 2009. It was found that he died in front of his computer which was surrounded by company documents. The prosecution found that the engineer had died of cardiogenic shock. The engineer’s parents said that he had usually worked for 16~19 hours a day.
- Japanese salarymen fight back The New York Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008
- Recession Puts More Pressure on Japan's Workers Business Week, January 5, 2009
- Case Study: Karoshi: Death from overwork
- Labor bureau: Japanese man, 45, died of overwork, Japanese labour bureau says
- Apple Daily, 27 September 2010 月加班 百小時 29歲工程師過勞死
|Look up karoshi in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Report on Karoshi (1997) from the Job Stress Network website of the Center For Social Epidemiology
- Japan working itself to an early grave (statistics for 2006)
- Article in The Economist, December 2007
- Yahoo! News article, 7/8/2008
- Picture of a T-shirt warning of karōshi