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Karōshi (過労死?), which can be translated literally from Japanese as "death from overwork", is occupational sudden death. Although this category has a significant count, Japan is one of the few countries[which?] that reports it in the statistics as a separate category. The major medical causes of karōshi deaths are heart attack and stroke due to stress.
The first case of karōshi was reported in 1969 with the death from a stroke 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 twelve or more hours a day, six or seven days a week, year after year, without suffering physically as well as mentally. A recent measurement found that a Japanese worker has approximately two hours overtime a day on average. It is common for the overtime to go unpaid.
Effects on society
Many will be prepared to work unpaid overtime to an extreme extent particularly as their young 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.
Meanwhile, death-by-overwork lawsuits have been on the rise in Japan, with the deceased person's relatives demanding compensation payments. However, before compensation can be awarded, the labour inspection office must acknowledge that the death was work-related. As this may take many years in detailed and time-consuming judicial hearings, many do not demand payment.
Japanese courts have awarded damages to relatives in cases of work overload induced stress or depression ending with the suicide of the employee when the Labour Standards Inspection Office rejected the plea for compensation. The linked article also mentions the practice of "voluntary" undocumented unpaid overtime (サービス残業 sābisu zangyō?) as leading to karōshi incidents.
Since there is a unique custom of "simultaneous recruiting of new graduates" (新卒一括採用 Shinsotsu-Ikkatsu-Saiyō?) in Japan, one can hardly find a steady new job if he/she quits or is fired halfway through their lifetime. Therefore, workers cannot decline working unpaid overtime.
The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare published relevant statistics in 2007: 189 workers died, many from strokes or heart attacks, and about 208 more fell severely ill from overwork in the year to March, the highest figure on record and up 17.6% from the previous year. Another 921 workers contended they became mentally ill due to overwork, with 306 cases given compensation, according to the ministry data released on Wednesday. Some workers killed themselves or attempted to do so in 201 cases.
The Japanese government is now beginning to recognize the extent of responsibility that companies bear in overworking employees. On 29 April 2008, a company was ordered to pay ¥200 million to a man overworked until he fell into a coma. Legislation is currently in promulgation to prevent or at least reduce the cases and severity of karōshi. It is expected[who?] that such moves may also include limits on overtime work as well as the introduction of required medical examination before employers may clear employees to perform overtime work which exceeds a certain number of working hours.
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, opting to stay in the office with the lights off or simply taking their work home (called furoshiki or "cloaked overtime").
In 2007, Mitsubishi UFJ Trust & Banking, a division of Japan's largest banking group, started to allow employees to go home up to three 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. Labor regulations limit the amount of overtime, so in order not to contradict labor regulations, workers are being told not to record the overtime, as it would be considered an illegal action from the side of the company. The workers themselves often rationalize this with attributing the overwork with lacking skills from their side, describing a lack of familiarity with the work, "not being trained enough" as the cause for them 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, as the reaction of colleagues, superiors and even family and friends is feared. "Seken" (世間), or the "public gaze" (the opinions of others about one's behavior) is a strong factor in this. It is safe to assume that most statistics of overtime in Japanese companies are not accurate, as overtime is not recorded in many occasions. It is not uncommon for many Japanese employees to work late hours until 2-3 am in the morning, 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 one 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 old age 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 as a result of overwork. His family was awarded benefits after his case was reviewed.
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- Japanese work environment
- Japanese management culture
- Power harassment
- Work-life balance
- Suicide in Japan
- Stress (biological)
- Burnout (psychology)
- The Toyota Way
- Simultaneous recruiting of new graduates
- 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
- Labor bureau: Japanese man, 45, died of overwork, Japanese labour bureau says
|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