Work Kills: Japanese government addresses overwork epidemic

18 Oct|Andrew Smart

Karoshi Society: Japan is working itself to death and it has global consequences

In April 2014, 27-year-old Joey Tocnang died of heart failure in Japan. Tocnang was working between 78.5 and 122.5 hours of overtime a month. This week the Guardian reports that the Japanese authorities have ruled his death was directly related to the long hours of overtime he was forced to perform. The Japanese government warns that 20% of the entire workforce is at risk of death from overwork, or karoshi.

In 2013 alone, 21-year-old banking intern Moritz Erhardt collapsed and died in the shower of a seizure after working a 72-hour shift. 24-year-old copywriter Mita Diran died of heart failure after working for 30-hours straight. Shortly before her death she Tweeted that she was still going strong. And 24-year-old ad-agency employee Li Yuan died of a heart attack after reportedly working until 11pm for over a month.

Karoshi is a Japanese word that means “death from overwork”. The word entered the Japanese lexicon in the 1970’s and has since been adopted by the international academic and medical community to describe sudden death among otherwise healthy young people who work extreme amounts. While not a part of English vernacular, the incidence and awareness of karoshi cases is increasing globally. It is one of Japan’s less talked about exports.

As overwork becomes the norm in many professions, the serious health consequences of this practice must be acknowledged and a policy debate should follow. How much of our health should we be expected to sacrifice in order to advance professionally, or to simply keep our jobs? This question is especially relevant for the growing “precariat” class in the US – people in the “gig economy” who live and work without predictability or security.

Are the tragic cases listed above freak accidents or do these widely publicized deaths reflect a deeper underlying problem with work? Over 600,000 Chinese workers die from exhaustion every year. These cases mirror the Japanese deaths that gave rise to the word karoshi: young professionals who were working more than 100 hours per week (not month). The latest evidence indicates that working more than 48 hours per week significantly increases the risk of stroke.

Awareness of karoshi in Japan has increased and efforts to curb extreme work practices have been implemented, including a law enacted in 2014 that obliges the government to take steps to eliminate overwork induced deaths. However these efforts appear to be in vain, as the incidence of karoshi deaths and work-induced suicides are rising. Extreme work is not restricted to Japan and China – the practice is increasing in the United States and the EU.

The leading cause of death in the United States is cardiovascular disease. The incidence of obesity and related metabolic disorders is increasing. At the root of these pernicious chronic and deadly conditions is our lifestyle. The core of this lifestyle is office work, which is often carried out sitting in front a computer screen. The treatment focus for these chronic conditions is often changes in diet and exercise, together with myriad medications – however little attention is given to real underlying reason why we have high stress, poor diets and sedentary lifestyles: our jobs. It turns out that no matter how much you work out after sitting all day at your computer, you will still die early from office work.

In the ever-accelerating economy, where companies are forced to race to be the first to market or release a new product lest the stock price go down; workers, managers, and employees are pressed harder and harder. Profit is squeezed from every last moment of the workday – even when that day is twenty hours long. Work for ordinary people has become a frenetic, hysterical and deadly competition to achieve impossible ideals of efficiency, innovation and profit. For those fortunate enough to have jobs, many have become replaceable cogs in enormous corporate bureaucracies.  Or they are now part of the so-called “sharing economy” embodied by companies like Uber and Airbnb who do not have employees, but expect workers to be available on-demand without providing job security, health insurance, pensions or paid-vacations.

These trends are alarming. Joey Tocnang’s tragic case illustrates the life-threatening dangers of overwork. On a longer time scale, even just a few hours of extra work per week can result in chronic disease and even early death.

Japan should be a warning to the rest of the world about the extreme risks of our work über alles culture – it is deadly.