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Karoshi and You: Burnout in the Workplace Part 1

We all know that there needs to be a balance in life: time for work, for rest, for play. But eastern countries are dealing with karoshi, the deathly silent killer that consumes thousands of hard-working employees per year. Burnout is common in the U.S. too and it’s time to start addressing overtime work and the stresses it causes on our bodies.

So what is karoshi?

Westerners might define karoshi as burnout taken to the extremes, but in Japan it’s literal translation is overwork death. It first came to light in the 1980’s as a virtuous death due to overworking. According to many eastern cultures, working hard and putting in long hours is seen as a virtue and something both white and blue-collar workers should take pride in.

Unfortunately, this ‘virtue’ has terrible side-effects and has caused enough deaths that citizens can easily refer to the term ‘karoshi’ in their daily lives. In 2013 Miwa Sado, a political journalist in Japan died of heart failure despite only being 31. She worked 159 hours and 37 minutes of overtime leading up to her hospitalization, adding up to a little under 6 hours of overtime every day. Texts exchanged with her father reveal that she was constantly stressed out and thought about quitting her job daily.

In 2016 Japan’s government stated that 12% of its country’s companies put in more than 100 hours of overtime per month. In March 2016, Japan’s health ministry identified 93 suicides and attempted suicides from karoshi but police believe there is a least 2,159 suicide cases attributed to overwork.

In April 2014, 27-year-old Joey Tocnang died of heart failure due to karoshi after logging in 122.5 hours of overtime per month. Tocnang immigrated to Japan for work in 2011 to support his wife and kid back in the Philippines and had only 3 months left before returning home.

Bursting the bubble

While many westerners work overtime in an effort to make additional money or prove their worth like their eastern counter-parts, Japanese workers are rarely ever compensated for their overtime hours.

So why would Japanese workers continue to work for companies that fail to pay them for overtime hours? While it’s easy to point the finger at traditional eastern values, there is some blame attributed to Japan’s economic bubble burst in the early 1990’s.

Karoshi has been used to describe work-related deaths beginning in the 1960’s and 70’s but then, Japanese youth did not fear job loss. Their futures were secure until the mid-1980’s when asset prices increased and stock prices rapidly grew. In 1992, asset prices fell and major financial institutions lost millions. Many Japanese white-collar workers felt pressured to work overtime despite not being paid for overtime work. Job security was not guaranteed and is still a lingering risk today.

The 1990’s are considered the Lost Decade when karoshi numbers skyrocketed and could have been considered an epidemic. Many white-collar Japanese men developed and died very young from heart disease or diabetes.

But traditional values win out as the over-lying trigger of karoshi. As far back as post WWII, when Japanese workers worked the longest hours in world, motivated men returned to work and began funding financial institutions and job-creation surged.

What does karoshi look like?

The Japanese created the word karoshi and other eastern countries have developed their own words for it to. The Chinese refer to karoshi as ‘guolaosi’ and South Koreans call it ‘gwarosa.’ The U.S. has yet to define karoshi in our own words but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening here.

Stress looks like:

- sleepiness or tiredness

- non-responsive behavior and attitudes

- feeling sluggish and not sitting upright

Although there are signs of stress, many people deal with anxiety and workplace stress outside of the office. The problem with working extreme amounts of overtime is the loss of relief and time to pursue other interests. Part 2 of Karoshi and You: Burnout in the Workplace will address the stresses caused by working overtime, the conditions and diseases it can cause and strategies to reduce stressors and live a more balanced life.