Karoshi, or overworking to death, is a very real issue plaguing Japan’s workforce. The major causes of karoshi are a stress-induced heart attack, stroke, effects of malnutrition, and suicide. Prolonged exposure to stress takes a toll on the physical and mental well-being of employees. It’s been a part of the public conscience since the mid-80s.
Just recently, an animator named Kazunori Mizuno passed away due to karoshi, with many in the community wondering what this phenomenon really is.
However, karoshi related deaths have slowly been going up. In fact, A national survey conducted in 2016 estimates that 20% of employees are at risk. Many foreigners look at the issue and ask why the Japanese government doesn’t step in to do something. Well…it’s a lot more complicated than writing a few laws and issuing fines to corporations for lack of compliance.
Toxic Work Culture
This form of “Japanese work ethic” came about during the reconstruction after World War II. Japan was devastated due to the war and needed everyone to work extra hard to rebuild the country.
Japan saw a huge financial and technological leap between 1942 to the mid-80s, and it was due to the hard work of employees. Their economy was in a golden age and foreign countries wanted to learn about “Japanese work ethic and efficiency.” Companies began to overvalue the self-sacrifice and dedication employees offered out of necessity and began to turn it into an expectation.
It is considered shameful to leave the office before your boss and a sign of weakness to talk about fatigue or overwork. Another taboo is the notion of overtime.
It’s believed that 22.7% of Japanese workers put in more than 80 hours of overtime a month – which is considered the threshold before karoshi becomes an issue. However, overtime tends to go unrecorded (ironically) due to labor regulations. Employees are required to report overtime to labor groups since it’s illegal for companies to do so. Yet, it’s the employees that are falsifying their hours.
Employees rationalize this practice by attributing overtime due to lacking skills. “If I was good at my job, I wouldn’t need no damn overtime.” Combine this sense of pride with the concept of stoicism that is hammered into a person’s head at an early age, and you get a workforce that sees recording overtime as a nuisance to their employer and filing complaints as shameful.
The Japanese government can pass all the labor laws and regulations that they want. Nothing will actually get done if employees fail to cooperate.
To be fair, it’s not like karoshi is a weapon used by corporate overlords – turns out employee deaths is bad business!
There are companies, like Toyota, that have tried to limit the amount of overtime that is available to workers and they encourage workers to leave at 7 pm. But, it’s hard to manage overtime on a corporate level when employees fail to record it or choose to take their work home. The same issue crops up when companies try to implement “no overtime days.” You can turn off the lights and force employees to leave early, but they will still work at home.
In fact, Mitsubishi UFJ Trust and Banking, one of the largest banks in the world, offers a program that allows workers to leave 3 hours early to care for children and elderly relatives. Only 34 of 7,000 employees signed up for the program.
This comes from a social construct called seiken or public gaze. Essentially, it’s the fear that your co-workers will think you are lazy or unreliable if you participated in work programs that allowed for early dismissal.
Effect on Suicide Culture
The majority of karoshi death is suicide. Every year, roughly 30,000 suicides occur in Japan. 71% of suicides are committed by men with the majority being aged between 20 to 44.
Unemployment accounts for 57% of all suicides, with work-related stress (such as long overtime hours), work fatigue, and work-related depression being the other leading factors. It’s been said that callers have to contact the suicide prevention hotline 30 to 40 times before receiving an answer due to the lines being so busy.
The Depressing Truth
It’s sad to say, but karoshi is not going to disappear anytime soon. Some companies have tried combating the phenomenon with various work programs, but change has to start at a cultural level, which can take lifetimes to happen.